Thursday, 19 July 2012

Opera Review: Otello

Written by Tim Walker
Culture-Opera-July20-03-Tim-Walker-176I sometimes find myself counting the number of actors who appear on a stage at any one time. With the minimum Equity rates that are applicable, one seldom, if ever, sees more than half a dozen these days. As the economic climate worsens and the budgets for West End shows contract still further, I fear I will be reviewing more and more one-man shows in the months ahead.

One could therefore but gasp as the curtain rose at the Royal Opera House on its production of Verdi's Otello. The number of people on the stage looked at first as if it exceeded the number in the audience. I started counting and got to 70 when they all started to move around and it became impossible. There is something rather magnificent about the way that this little corner of Covent Garden has shielded itself from the economic mess that has blighted every other square inch of the country.

The venue's revival of Elijah Moshinsky's celebrated 1987 production is opera on the grand scale. Timothy O'Brien's set design beautifully captures the exotic quattrocento splendours of the Doge's eastern Mediterranean empire and the singing is, by and large, superlative.

Aleksandrs Antonenko is impressive in the title role, with a plangency and projection that is at once haunting and beautiful. I found myself wondering at one point if the Latvian tenor had blacked up – as Olivier did when he played the part in Shakespeare's original – but, if he had, it was done with the discretion that befits these politically correct times. If Antonenko doesn't bring the hue of Olivier's slap to the Moor, then he succeeds in communicating a lot that great actor's panther-like sensuality.

Anja Harteros invests Desdemona with a sense of challenged virtue which invests the proceedings with an air of pathos. She appears first in a white gown emphasising chastity, before going through a number of costume changes that seem to take the audience with her on a journey of sexual awakening. The dénouement of her murder in the bed chamber is startlingly realised. The drapes alone were long enough to smother an entire Belgravia townhouse.

If there is a weak link in this majestic undertaking it is Lucio Gallo's Iago. This peformer, alas, lacks the subtlety required to play the treacherous and cynical character on which the plotline so pivotally revolves. By contrast, Antonio Poli, in his debut as Cassio, the captain framed by Iago as Desdemona's paramour, has a voice as mellifluous as any I've ever heard in this role. All in all, an impressive production that, for once, hasn't been directed by the accountants.

Until 24th Royal Opera House. London WC2

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