First thing’s first: Verdi’s opera Otello holds up a mirror to Shakespeare’s text, a distilled reflection of the action and not the Bard’s brilliant writing. Nonetheless, Verdi lets his rich score speak for him, taking the genre of tragedy to a Wagnerian level with its sprawling chorus and tormented melodies.
We still have the main plot of Shakespeare’s Othello: a soldier driven mad by jealousy, duped by his friend Iago that his wife Desdemona is having an affair with his second-in-command, Cassio. In Verdi’s opera, we do away with the secondary themes concerning Othello’s race. Stuart Skelton doesn’t black up as Othello, nor does he need to with the driving force of the opera unaffected by this loss of racial dispute. If anything, Verdi has made more space for the operatic trope of hamming up the lamentation.
Skelton has an excellent voice – every inflection drips onto the next note in a seamless expression of intense feeling. Leah Crocetto is an excellent match for Skelton in chemistry, the very picture of femininity. As these two solitary figures embrace on a gargantuan stage in a moment before everything goes wrong, you can hear a pin drop. They draw focus whenever they’re on stage together and their voices mingle beautifully, resonating through you. Iago, played by Jonathan Summers, is at his best in his soliloquies to the audience, when every note is lined with venom (also, his falsetto is exquisitely rich). A little of Iago’s evil is sapped when his pretence is scored in a deceiving major key. Furthermore, Iago’s brilliance with words is somewhat lost in wordy sections of libretto that would rival Sondheim’s writing; otherwise, this translation is picturesquely written. This is where it pays to remember that Verdi’s opera is a different entity to the Bard’s play, but it’s very difficult not to make these comparisons here and there.
It’s worth mentioning that Otello opens a new season for the ENO, which celebrates 30 years of working with director David Alder. Obviously a favourite at the company, it surprises me a little that this production isn’t quite so daring as you come to expect of the ENO. Jon Morrell’s set is a backdrop for some exciting lighting from Adam Silverman, who creates some telling silhouettes in exchanges between Iago and Othello, while moments of interpretive dance in Maxine Braham’s choreography seem a little out of place. Elsewhere however, movement amongst the chorus, combined with their immense waves of sound, create brilliant energy on stage. As the crowd celebrates Othello’s victory on stage in this way, I can’t help but think the cast would be at home at the Queen’s Theatre marching to ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’…
Altogether, this is yet another accomplished production from the ENO, although a little more classical in staging than you might expect to celebrate working with Alder for 30 years. The immense voices make this production, taking Verdi’s excellent score to another level with acutely felt renditions that will haunt you long after you’ve left the theatre.
Otello is playing at the London Coliseum until 17 October. For tickets and more information see the English National Opera website.
Photo by Francis Loney.