First things first: vocally and orchestrally, the new production of Otello at the Royal Opera House, starring the legendary Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role at last, comes close to flawless. One of the greatest operatic works out there, Verdi’s late tragic opus has seldom sounded richer.

Commanding, tender, and thoughtful, Kaufmann’s Otello shifts convincingly from carefree, near-majestic confidence to existential terror and, ultimately, homicidal despair. Even at the top of Otello’s range, the voice always seems to be emerging from situation and character, not from superstar tenor lungs. Kaufmann has a trusty partner in the Royal Opera’s Music Director Antonio Pappano who leads the ever-responsive ROH orchestra, never more thrillingly than in the fire and brimstone of the opening and the searing yearning of Otello’s “bacio” theme, as if these notes are emerging organically from the story for the first time. Both Kaufmann and Pappano perform with the sense of exhilarating discovery that can only come from note-perfect mastery.

Perhaps Kaufmann’s greatest strength might be that his presence never overwhelms this production: he meets his match not only in Marco Vratogna, as the manipulative, lurking Iago, but also in Maria Agresta, singing Otello’s just and faithful wife Desdemona. Vratogna’s Iago radiates both the darkness that Verdi’s score requires and the insidious magnetism derived from Shakespeare’s original. It’s Agresta who’s the scene-stealing revelation of this production, though. Desdemona’s repeated pleas for Otello to forgive his disgraced lieutenant Cassio resonate here with the warmth of a truly noble woman. Agresta sings and acts especially captivatingly in the opening sequence of Act 4 – the dramatic tension in her Willow Song stands out as particularly spectacular.

The Royal Opera Chorus, under the direction of William Spaulding, does seriously phenomenal work here, not least in the overwhelming, surging counterpoint towards the end of Act 3. The supporting singers – Frédéric Antoun as Cassio, Kai Rüütel as Emilia, Simon Shibambu as Montano, and In Sung Sim as Lodovico – don’t have much to do but all rise to the level of their castmates, especially Antoun.

Despite a terrifyingly effective opening image of Iago throwing down the gauntlet, triggering an orchestral storm, in the villain’s quest to bring down Otello, Keith Warner’s heavy-handed staging otherwise only distracts and obscures. I have a feeling that Boris Kudlička’s hulking, abstract grey set is meant to suggest that the first half of the opera takes place within the inner sanctum of Iago’s plotting, gloomy mind (the light only breaks through when Iago denounces heaven) with that darkness overtaking Otello’s psyche after the interval, but the mechanical-looking columns look rather more like the singers have shrunk and gotten lost in a labyrinth of desktop computer towers. Warner often seems to prioritize symbol over storytelling: it’s a mistake to have Iago and Emilia’s half of the glorious quartet hidden behind a screen. It’s also psychologically obvious but dramatically unconvincing for Iago to stand above Otello while deviously vowing his loyalty at the end of Act 2.

My larger concerns about the production, though, have to do with race. At long last, there’s no trace of blackface or bronzer on a Covent Garden Otello, and that’s a relief, of course. But now that we’ve officially left the era of white tenors in blackface for the era of (predominantly) white tenors looking white, directors will have to grapple with how, if at all, Otello’s race can figure in productions. Warner’s approach seems like a definite misstep: as Otello begins to give into Iago’s rumors about Desdemona, he looks in a mirror and the audience sees what appears to be a dummy presenting the stereotypical image of a moor in traditional garb and in unrealistic blackface. It would be a controversial moment even with an Otello of colour, but, with Kaufmann, it’s also just utterly confusing: is this, presumably, how Otello now imagines himself? And should we be reading Otello as a black man and not see Kaufmann’s race? But if we shouldn’t be noticing Kaufmann’s race, why is Warner directing our attention towards a mirror, forcing us to recognize the disjunction between the white singer and the exaggerated black body reflected back?

Maybe Warner’s aiming for a meta-theatrical comment on the impossibility of colour-blind audiences (I doubt it). I’m not sure precisely how directors should address race with white Otellos – most opera companies of the Royal Opera House’s stature still insist that there aren’t currently black tenors who can sing the role at a top-tier standard – but clarity in those choices moving forward will be essential. Alison Kinney at The Guardian recently proposed a “photo-negative” production with black singers playing all the principal (and chorus) roles except for Otello. In the right hands, that could be powerful.

Whatever the long-term solutions (which, I trust, will soon include casting tenors of colour in the title role), the path towards reaching them will need to include more renditions of this extraordinary work that are as superbly sung and stirringly played as this one to continue to justify the need to keep this masterpiece relevant, sensitive, and, most of all, alive.

Otello is playing at the Royal Opera House until July 15.

Photo: Tristram Kenton