Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito's Otello is renowned as one of the few truly successful Shakespearean operas, and while it's mostly a masterpiece on its own terms rather than Shakespeare's – countless scenes and characters are cut, and the very Verdian drinking song goes on far longer than you'd probably expect – there remains a hint of the brilliance of characterisation with which Shakespeare's play is filled. It is a true operatic tragedy, and Otello's decline is devastating in its effect.
That said, it's remarkable how much is left up to the performers in this piece, and without a crack cast the whole thing could easily fall apart. It's not just the music which the singers have to deal with – and Otello's is a fiendishly tough part to sing – but also the sizeable dramatic demands. With the libretto as concise as it is, a lot has to be communicated through the action on stage, in order for any hint of subtlety to remain. It's a real virtuoso piece, testing for all concerned.
For this revival of Elijah Moshinsky's traditionally-inclined 1987 production, the Royal Opera was fortunate to have such a top cast, with a leading trio all well versed in their respective roles already. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in particular was a magnificent leading man. With most of Shakespeare's first act having been cut for the opera, there is very little space for Otello to establish himself as a valiant hero before Iago's 'poisonous' mind-games set in, and so the pressure is really on in Act I to show quite why this jealous, quick-to-anger man is held in such high esteem – but Antonenko was a hero, as he had to be, right from his opening 'Esultate'. Possessing a brilliant, rich tone and a generally very strong upper register, Antonenko's Otello caught enough of the nobility of this character for his downfall to be truly compelling. The slight hoarseness of his voice in the final scene, when in the throes of death, was presumably deliberate, and anyhow made for a truly moving end.
Lucio Gallo as Iago was vocally just as strong, and very watchable throughout, though I felt that he hammed up his character's deceit more than was necessary, with a few too many 'What did I do?' shrugs and cartoonish strokes of the beard (he's been described as 'moustache-twirling' in the role before on Bachtrack). But Anja Harteros was the dream Desdemona, who performed with an incredible, touching tenderness and sang her final-act 'Willow Song' – one of few set pieces in the opera, but a real gem – with wonderful grace. The supporting cast were uniformly excellent; especially enjoyable were Antonio Poli (Cassio) and Brindley Sherratt (Lodovico).
This high quality in performance was mostly enhanced by Moshinsky's historical staging, all tall pillars, marble floors and tight trousers. There's something rather silly about striving for any sort of authenticity (as this production seems to) in a 19th-century Italian opera based on a 17th-century English play set in Venice and Cyprus (locations unknown to the play's author) – but as a vehicle for storytelling, the respectfulness of the direction was generally welcome. Some excellent lighting, designed by Robert Brian, was also welcome.
That said, the stage was remarkably cluttered at times – busy to the point of distracting during much of the first act, and confusing on one occasion in the second, when a children's chorus at the back of the stage was obscured by Otello and Iago strolling around in the foreground doing what looked like routine paperwork. But at other times, such as in the ensemble pieces, the balance was struck right and Verdi's writing was allowed to speak for itself.
It's a real technical showpiece from Verdi, after all, and his orchestration is startling throughout. Antonio Pappano coaxed out the subtleties of the score with obvious relish, and the orchestra responded well: the wind-heavy opening to Act IV, with its lamenting cor anglais solo, was beautifully delicate despite occasionally eyebrow-raising intonation. The chorus were also on top form, with a spectacular, full sound at every appearance.
This run of performances is part of the World Shakespeare Festival, itself affiliated somehow or other to the London 2012 festival. While for the full scope of Othello's theatrical genius you might need to look elsewhere, Boito and Verdi's version is a true masterpiece of operatic adaptation, and as nights at the opera go, few could be a better bet.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes
Production image © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, Anja Harteros as Desdemona © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, Lucio Gallo as Iago © ROH / Tristram Kenton
Hanna Hipp as Emilia, Anja Harteros as Desdemona © ROH / Catherine Ashmore