The Met Streams Otello

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this will stream at www.metopera.org

Saturday, June 6

Verdi’s  Otello ~ 2 Hrs. & 44 Mins

Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; starring Sonya Yoncheva, Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Željko Lučić. Transmitted live on October 17, 2015.

In this, his penultimate opera, Verdi pares Shakespeare’s tragedy down to its essential elements and demonstrates once again his mastery of characterization and pacing. Departing from his earlier works, which featured numerous distinct arias, duets, and ensemble numbers, Otello moves more seamlessly, with fewer interruptions of the momentum. Iago’s duplicity, Desdemona’s wrongful shaming and death, Otello’s fall—all are one visceral whole in a work that is Verdi at the height of his development as a composer working with gifted librettist Arrigo Boito (a composer in his own right, but Verdi’s librettist for his last two operas – Otello and Falstaff).

Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher’s new production attempts to focus viewers’ attention on the psychological underpinnings of Shakespeare’s great tragedy by using see-though architectural set elements whose color changes dramatically with the moods of the principals. On the podium is riveting conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who brings out all the emotion in this turbulent score. Aleksandrs Antonenko (we’ve seen him in Aida) is the Moor Otello – triumphant general of the Venetian army who is too easily brought down by the calculated actions of his advisor, Iago (Željko Lučić – we’ve already seen him as Macbeth, Rigoletto, and Baron Scarpia in Tosca,). Sonya Yoncheva (we’ve seen her as Tosca and Luisa Miller), is Desdemona, Otello’s faithful and much-wronged wife. The production also features Günther Groissböck (he was Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier) as Lodovico and Dimitri Pittas as Cassio.

The setting has been updated to the late 19th century around the time of the opera’s 1887 premiere. Working with Mr. Sher, the British set designer Es Devlin, in an auspicious Met debut, has created a series of sliding, translucent walls that can suggest vast outdoor spaces one moment, or an intimate bedroom the next. The characters move in and around the walls and we can see both their public and private movements.

This particular production first made news when the Met announced that, breaking with past practice (since 1891!), it would cease to apply any kind of blackface to Otello. The use of darkening makeup to suggest a character’s race has long seemed obsolete and even insensitive. Mr. Sher argued that, whereas Shakespeare’s Othello encountered overt racism, the opera softens these attitudes and emphasizes the issue of his otherness. There has certainly been controversy around this point. In both the play and the opera, Othello/Otello is feared, envied, and hated – specifically because of his skin color. Othello is isolated from the other characters particularly by the color of his skin and he is more susceptible to Iago’s machinations because of that. Many critics feel Othello’s race is essential to the story. Doing away with the potentially offensive practice of putting the lead tenor in blackface, is one thing, but Sher has been criticized for having no ideas on what to do instead. The abuse and suspicion Otello endures as a black man in Venetian society are essential driving forces for his character; with a white tenor in the role, if the director can find no way to portray his status as “other,” the story as written simply does not make any sense. You’ll just have to judge for yourself.

On a stormy evening, the people of Cyprus anxiously await the arrival of their newly appointed governor, Otello, from a victorious naval battle with the Turks. The scene and the music are spectacular as the opera opens with violent weather, waves, and music to match. We meet the scheming Iago, the unscrupulous fop Roderigo, the naïve Cassio, Otello, himself, and finally Desdemona.

The essence of the tragedy is the ease with which a victorious and celebrated hero can be brought down by his own, as well as his society’s, sense of his “otherness.” The manipulative, ambitions and certainly prejudiced, Iago, schemes from the very first scene to take down Otello because of what he feels are numerous grievances – both real and imagined. Among these grievances, Iago is outraged that Otello has just appointed Cassio to be the captain of the navy, a position that Iago himself had hoped to have. This makes Cassio a target – as well as a useful pawn in Iago’s revenge.

Iago sings a drinking song and continues to pour Cassio wine. He succeeds in getting Cassio drunk enough to start a fight and cause a loud disturbance. Cassio and Montano duel, and Iago sends Roderigo to call the alarm. Montano is wounded and the fight is stopped only by the appearance of Otello. Otello restores order, but his doubts about Cassio are seeded and quickly grow to poison the entire environment. I’m sure most of you are aware of Iago’s nefarious plots, so I don’t need to rehash them here. If you are not, pay attention to the handkerchief!

You will also want to look for some of the very famous musical highlights of this powerful work. First, as Otello and Desdemona sing of their love and their hopes for their future: “Già nella notte densa” (Now as the darkness deepens / all harsh sounds die away, / and now my turbulent heart / finds peace in this embrace / and calm refreshment).

Later as Iago explains his approach to life: “Credo in un Dio crudel che m’ha creato / simile a sè e che nell’ira io nomo.” (I believe in a cruel God / who created me in his image / and who in fury I name). Then in the innocent Desdemona’s final moments: The Willow Song –“Mia madre aveva una povera ancella, innamorata e bella” (I am so sad, so sad; My mother had a poor maidservant, she was in love and pretty); and her final prayer, “Ave Maria, piena di grazia, eletta / fra le spose e le vergini sei tu” (Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed amongst wives and maids art thou, and blessed is the fruit, o blessed one, of thy maternal womb, Jesu).

And as the tragedy ends, Otello’s “Niun mi tema” (Let no one fear me / though he see me armed. / Here is my journey’s end … Oh! Glory! / Othello’s day is done), he kills himself in grief over his murdering of Desdemona.

Photo Credits

1.              Željko Lučić as Iago in Verdi’s “Otello.” Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

2.              Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona and Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role of Verdi’s “Otello” at the Met. Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

3.              Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role and Željko Lučić as Iago in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Met. Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

4.             Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role and Željko Lučić as Iago in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Met. Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

5.             Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona and Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role of Verdi’s “Otello” at the Met. Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

6.             Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Met. Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.

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