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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Otello - when NP stands for "Non Production"

Photo by Ken Howard

The 2015-16 season of the Metropolitan Opera opened with Bartlett Sher's "new production" of Otello that would have been more appropriately labeled as a "Non Production." The set by Es Devlin was a bunch of plexiglass panels that slid back and forth mostly for the purposes of ushering the chorus on and offstage. The stage was bare except for an Ikea-upholstered bed at the end of Act 2 and Act 4. The blocking and person-regie was barely existent. A singer could have read the libretto for five minutes and come up with the same movements. Onstage, offstage, cower in fear, ball fists to look mad, collapse in a heap on the floor to look dead.


It's hard to understand Sher's thinking in this production. The opera is updated to the 19th century -- why? It only reinforces the idea of this being a non-production because the generic gowns and suits (designed by Catherine Zuber) everyone wears evokes nothing in particular except "in the past." I can understand the decision not to put Otello in blackface, but why did he not bother to characterize Otello at all? There's no sense of who he is. He is not an "other" in Venetian society. He is not a fearsome warrior. He is not a tender lover. He is not a jealous, rage-fueled husband. In this production he's just a guy in a military suit. Was it the acting limitation of Aleksandrs Antonenko? Why did Sher almost completely ignore the deliberate structure of Boito's libretto? Boito split the acts into: Act 1 - public realm, Act 2 private realm, Act 3 private becomes public, and Act 4 private. In this production the plexiglass panels move back and forth aimlessly, without any sense of scenes changing. The setup of the performance was often very much like a concert opera -- singers lined up at the lip of the stage, staring at the conductor, chorus in the back.

The cast and musical performance had some highs (notably Sonya Yoncheva's radiant Desdemona) but nothing so spectacular to merit a new production. Antonenko's voice sounds like it SHOULD have the volume, squillo, and stamina for the punishing title role, But the actual sound is strangulated, monochromatic, doesn't project well, and he yells more than he sings. His interpretation brings no sympathy and his diction is atrocious -- consonants AND vowels are mostly gone. "Un bacio" comes out as "Un baaaa-ooooo." This might be ameliorated if he had any acting chops but he might be a worse actor than the last Otello I saw (Johan Botha) if that's even possible. He balls his fists when he's mad. That's it.

Photo by Ken Howard

Zeljko Lucic is a somewhat over-exposed baritone at the Met nowadays -- it seems as if there's a heavy-hitting Verdi baritone role, Lucic goes on. His woofy, fading baritone was less problematic as Iago than in some other roles I've seen him in -- his introverted, low-key stage persona was sort of effective in portraying the kind of quiet, gossipy creeper. His voice still gets stuck in his throat sometimes ("Credo" was an unfortunate time his voice decided to get stuck) but it was a solid performance.

The best thing of the night (and the only singer to merit a new production) was Sonya Yoncheva's Desdemona. Her large, well-produced, shimmery soprano floated over the 4,000 persona auditorium with an angelic sweetness from the first act love duet to then great Act Three concertato to the final piano in her prayer. Yoncheva's acting wasn't that detailed, but she created a dignified, sympathetic character. This is the third time I've seen Yoncheva (I've also seen her in La Boheme and La Traviata) and I don't know whether it's conscious or unconscious but she's set herself up as a viable foil to the Met's current prima donna Anna Netrebko. Netrebko's extroverted, lusty portrayals and powerhouse voice are huge crowd favorites. Yoncheva is a cooler creature, but no less arresting. Beautiful voice, beautiful woman. Her future seems limitless.

The supporting roles were mixed. Jennifer Johnson Cano was an excellent Emilia. Her voice blended well with Yoncheva's. Dimitri Pittas (Cassio) is one of those younger tenors who already sounds old. Quavery, whiny voice. Maybe I'm spoiled -- my last Cassio was Michael Fabiano. Yannick Nézet-Séguin certainly can create an exciting, brassy stentorian sound from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra but he didn't show much sensitivity to the struggling Antonenko, who could have benefitted from a conductor less determined to max out the brass section.

This is a new production that won't even take a season or two to look tired and dated. It already looks tired and dated, and it's ... what, three weeks old?

5 comments:

  1. Would that you were the chief classical music critic for The New York Times.

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    1. Thanks. I don;t have much time to go to stuff anymore but I appreciate the kind words.

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  2. Great review above, Ivy, but thanks for your kind comment at you know where (I'm on perpetual moderation so my thanks there may not get through!!!!!)

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    1. I hope you write more for the site! Your review was fantastic.

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