VERDI Otello (Pappano)
Long before Keith Warner’s new production of Otello opened at the Royal Opera House, there was concern whether Jonas Kaufmann would make his debut in the title-role as planned. Despite the performances coming at the end of an illness-plagued season for the superstar German tenor, however, he did indeed turn up. (It was Ludovic Tézier, due to sing Iago, who didn’t make it as far as opening night: the victim of some early putting-the-foot-down by Covent Garden’s then-new Director of Opera, Oliver Mears.)
Reports of the opening night suggest Kaufmann displayed some nervousness in tackling this tenorial peak for the first time. On this DVD/Blu ray, however, filmed a week later, he’s on confident form. Indeed, the voice is in very good condition, traversing the role with plenty of his trademark burnished tone, honeyed pianissimos and no signs of tiredness. Vocally it’s a mightily impressive achievement. But almost too much so: I miss the element of wildness. Kaufmann sings intelligently and sensitively but there’s a sense that this is a role being expertly negotiated rather than lived. That sense is compounded by a production that offers little of Otello’s otherness or nobility of spirit – of the heights from which he falls so precipitously.
Warner directs principals and chorus well but plumps for a semi-abstract modernism that is short of atmosphere: it’s all predominantly dark until we get to a bedroom in Act 4 that looks like it’s come out of a glossy catalogue. Costumes, including an impressive array of leather trousers for Kaufmann, manage to look both expensive and cheap. The ship that rolls on upstage at the start looks like it should be in a production of The Flying Dutchman. Boris Kudlička’s sets are neat but sterile, though there’s some striking lighting from Bruno Poet to help underline Otello’s separateness, if not his otherness.
Warner also underlines the centrality of Iago as puppet-master, as director of the action, who forcibly, at one stage, places a tragedy mask on a prostrate Otello. Marco Vratogna rises to this challenge well, and the video direction shows the detail in his acting. The voice, however, is rather too rough and short on power to my ears. Similary, I find Maria Agresta’s Desdemona more moving as an actress than as a singer – I found myself returning to Marina Poplavskaya in Stephen Langridge’s Salzburg production, a more moving portrayal opposite Aleksandrs Antonenko’s more visceral Moor.
There are other advantages to the present release, though: Antonio Pappano’s fiery and detailed conducting, the fine orchestral playing and an excellent supporting cast (Kai Rüütel’s Emilia is wonderfully moving). Kaufmann’s Otello is a work in progress and the production isn’t what it might be but this is still a film well worth exploring, especially at Sony’s modest asking price.