Otello           

 

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[Otello Berlin 2013]

 


 

 

 

 

 

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

 

Dramma lirico in 4 acts
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Based on the tragedy Othello, THE MOOR OF VENICE by William Shakespeare
First performed on 5th February, 1887 at Milan
Premiered at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 30th May, 2010


In Italian language with German surtitles

 

Conductor - Paolo Carignani

Director - Andreas Kriegenburg

Stage-design - Harald Thor

Costume-design - Andrea Schraad

Light-design  - Stefan Bolliger

Dramaturge - Katharina John

Choir Conductor - William Spaulding

Artistic-production-manager - Christian Baier

Children's Choir - Dagmar Fiebach

Choreographer - Zenta Haerter

Otello - José Cura

Iago - Zeljko Lucic

Cassio - Yosep Kang

Rodrigo - Gregory Warren

Lodovico - Hyung-Wook Lee

Montano - Jörn Schümann

Desdemona - Anja Harteros

Emilia - Liane Keegan

A herald - Lucas Harbour

 
 

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin

Kinderchor der Deutschen Oper Berlin

Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin


 
Otello, the foreigner and outsider, seems to have been showered with blessings - a brilliant military career and a beautiful wife from a respected family, who is confident and loving in her support of him. And yet it is Iago, one of Otello's inner circle of confidants, who hatches a lethal scheme to bring him down. Utterly without scruple, he exploits the greed and weakness of people, manipulates them and sets in train a series of events steeped in corruption and mistrust and culminating in Otello killing his beloved Desdemona, who he is convinced has been unfaithful to him. Many hold this brilliant work, completed late in Verdi's career, to be superior to Shakespeare's original. It is considered the greatest Italian tragic opera of the 19th century and a triumphal response on the part of Italian art to the gathering German predominance.

Following a successful campaign against the Turks, Otello, a general in the Venetian service, returns to Cyprus. A storm before his native coast plunges the homecomers into a chaos of natural forces, from which they only just manage to escape. On land, they are awaited by rejoicing crowds and Otello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago, supposedly a close friend of Otello, feels himself he has been passed over and demoted by the promotion of Cassio to Captain and Otello’s deputy. He resolves to revenge himself on the Moor, whom he secretly hates, and weaves a deadly intrigue. Exploiting the desires and weaknesses of the people surrounding him, he throws suspicion on Desdemona that she has been unfaithful, driving an irredeemable wedge between her and Otello. Having escaped from natural forces in Act I, Otello is defeated by the storms of his own mind. When several factors seem to suggest that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair, Otello strangles the woman whom he loves. For no cause, as is quickly shown. Otello faces the consequences and stabs himself to death.  
 
More than a decade and a half following the premiere of his AIDA, Verdi surprised the public with a Shakespeare adaptation which is regarded as the greatest Italian tragic opera of the nineteenth century and a triumphal response of Italian art to German dominance. Verdi − who, in all his operas, struggled always for dramatic truth, for the musical and dramatic unity, the “tinta musicale”, proper to each one − employs the whole range of his mature craft here. He condenses the plot in an ideal way, giving the manipulated and yet fateful action an aura of compulsive inevitability. When it is said that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, are the only people to have successfully improved on a Shakespeare play, this is at least an indication that they were able to convey the spirit of Shakespeare’s original to the world of opera in a well-matched way.  
 
This opera relies on one character and draws its subterranean driving force from just one − that is the hero of the opera, the anti-hero, whose intelligence and thoroughness are so great as to be truly terrible. Terrible, not villainous. His credo − which he would otherwise conceal, but must reveal in the opera, because all must be revealed, otherwise it is not an opera − is the most consistent credo that can exist for a consistent murderer, in other words for a man who has intelligence. He takes people apart − but for him they are not people, only analysable puppets; he makes them suffer and cry and kill. The others are people, inadequate, pitiable, sick, stupid, blind; but Iago is sublime in his terribleness; he tempts the others to death. Tempting men to death is not villainous, but bestial, if that is not too mild an expression. He is human. People can be brought to death, but only a man can do that. And Iago is the most extreme example of what a man can do. Otello’s howls of anguish, Desdemona’s death, the humiliations and pain suffered by others − that is what he gains. A purposeless gain, one might say; but self destruction needs such gains [Ingeborg Bachmann]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 
   

Otello Reviews!

We received so many that it would be impossible to include them all, so we picked a few as samples--some long, some short.  Hope you enjoy!

 

Huge thanks to Gudrun, Melodie, and Monica!

 

Kultiversum:

Musically the evening shines above all due to the very high level of the protagonists. José Cura is an Otello of magnificent strength and blazing highs, though initially his intonation was somewhat hit and miss….. The singers were celebrated with ovations at the end, particularly the leading pair.  

 

Die-Mark-Online

José Cura in the title role is an event! Beginning with his 'Esultate', he traverses his role tour de force style and has terrifying presence both vocally and physically. There is no way Desdemona can escape him, berserk as he is in his infantile thirst for revenge. With glowing melodic arches and breathtaking piani, the loving wife bids a heart-rending farewell to the world in the Willow Song and the “Ave Maria” prayer of her big scene in Act IV, covered in her immaculatly white wedding dress. The audience enthusiastically celebrated this exceptional singer.

 

FAZ.NET : "Where Is My Battle Plan For Love?"

[…]Love (on the operatic stage) is when tenor and soprano gaze at each other yearningly: radiantly heroic or lyrically touching or coming to kneel in front of each other, slowly, chromatically. Indeed, when, at any opera, has one last experienced an encounter between singers, where love seemed to be not just a basic emotion, taken for granted as readily available, but rather- like some valuable and precious brocade - had to actually be spun first, carefully, gently and sensitively, out of the relationship's tender entangled threads  of mutual and alternating advances and pausing? Perhaps one has to come from the stage of the spoken theater like director Andreas Kriegenburg, in order to be able to so extensively penetrate the psychology of such a scene permeating it with intimacy and credibility on an operatic stage.

At the end of the first act of Giuseppe Verdi's "Otello", the great warrior, just now  celebrated, finds himself cast from the battlefield into the bedroom with his pre-Raphaelite Madonna. There he seems insecure and awkward at first despite all of his military triumphs. To begin with, he aimlessly fiddles around with a towel, hesitant, undecided; appears almost shy as he moves a strand of hair off the face of his Desdemona; then lays his power at her feet symbolically in that he lets her step across his outspread coat. And she reacts to these gestures with almost plant-like clinging and compliance as she nestles softly up to him. The way Kriegenburg succeeds (in his new staging at the DOB) in moving, in inspiring  two stars  of the operatic stage - the charismatic José Cura, who makes his instrument speak powerfully, and the phenomenal Anja Harteros, who guides her enchanting soprano timbre effortlessly through all registers -  to a subtle characterization, eloquent down to the tiniest of gestures, is truly stunning, utterly intriguing."

(translation: Monica B.)

 

Der Tagesspiegel:

Otello's "Esultate!"-entrance is the horror of tenors, from the dressing room straight up to the high B-- Cura fails in this, due to hoarseness and a prematurely broken off top note. Nevertheless, the man brings a virile power to the stage; the international career he has made for himself (not least with this role) in the late lee of Domingo, Pavarotti and Co. is because of this atmospheric aspect surely hard to deny. And when the Venetian commander admits his fatal jealousy to himself in the third act (Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali"), it comes across if a bit theatrically, nevertheless with class.

 

Financial Times Germany

He sobs and sings and moans - and shoots; for, at the Deutsche Oper, the jealous general does indeed not stab himself but rather puts a gun to his belly. After almost four acts full of cultivated boredom, a thunderstorm of boos by the attendees of the premiere broke over the production team and a storm of cheers over the singers. Out of Verdi's psychological drama and marital tragedy, the director had made a pessimistic pièce noire, at the center of which he put the misery of encampment for today's refugees. Othello (in the title without 'h') is an aging Macho in suspenders. The few intimate moments when he is alone with Desdemona are among the most subtle, uplifting ones of the premiere. There, José Cura and Anja Harteros convince as opera’s new perfect couple.  Certainly Cura, as always with great stage presence in his signature role, does push the sound hard in order to hit all the hellish Bs and Cs; Harteros presented the audience with stellar moments as Desdemona. 

 

Berlin Morgenpost

The American Patrick Summers, helpful in having taken over the conducting of the performance from Paolo Carignani, who had fallen ill, now hits performers and audience over the head with it full force: a man of instrumental effects, as long as they have much bang about them. And for that, Verdi affords many opportunities, and he (Summers) can get away with it, when he has a super-great heroic tenor like José Cura at his disposal. [...] Cura takes advantage of many an instant for explosions of overwhelming dramatic power. 

 

Der Neue Merker

Kriegenburg's presentation of the stage characters is to be lauded. As a theater director, Kriegenburg instructs the singers to express their internal emotional conflicts also physically. This benefits above all José Cura in the title role. If he seemed quite stiff as Calaf in "Turandot" just a few days ago, here he is convincing both as tender and affectionate lover and as berserk madman half-crazed with jealousy.

Appropriately, he doesn't go for continuous beautiful singing (Schöngesang) but for expression. Now and then, he delivers harsh attacks, sometimes even allows his voice to growl and hiss. Entirely different: his first private time together with Desdemona (Anja Harteros) at the end of the first act. In "Gia, nella notte densa/ Now in the still of the night" Cura fascinates with his mellifluousness and dark bloom.

 

Berliner Zeitung
 
There was an atmosphere of quiet whispering, subdued groaning, suppressed moaning as the audience of the German Opera awaited the opening of the new production of "Otello".  They were greeted by a background comprised of what appeared to be overcrowded sleeping bunks, wash basins on filthy tiled wall and a choir dressed as ragged refugees.  This sight alone was enough to raise the alarm within the senses of the opera cognoscenti. One had  expected something extraordinary from director Andreas Kriegenburg since his reputation had preceded him on account of his rather disappointing record as house director of the German Theatre.  The surge of booing however, against which some defiant Bravi tried to struggle, merely served to exaggerate the magnitude of the failing and the disappointment engendered by this setting.

Indeed, the beginning did not work properly. Verdi begins his last but one opera with a chaotic-apocalyptic storm. The music whose waves seem to fill the entire auditorium, are of powerful verisimilitude.   The appearance of Otello in the midst of this storm, precisely at a crescendo in the music, is a big theatrical moment.  Otello's entrance was, however, subdued.  He appeared quite inconspicuously and, after singing his twelve bars, unobtrusively slipped out of sight.  Jose Cura did not impress in his entrance for he appeared merely to sing the notes without any emotion or impact.

However, this tired beginning was not typical of the entire production. This was because, whilst the staging with the scenery of Harald Thor was a significant problem since it established no relation with the needs of the careful and precise direction it, nevertheless, provided a relatively unobtrusive background for the carefully rehearsed precision of the vocally dynamic choir.    Thus, it was possible for the audience to edge out the scenery and concentrate upon the characters on stage.   In spite of this apparent paradox Kriegenburg has something to say to us.

Otello fails because, faced with the imagined unfaithfulness of Desdemona, Kriegenburg lets him be pulled back drunk, to return with cynical remarks and with dismissive hand gestures. In these hand gestures by Otello there is something reminiscent of such American cinema marital dramas such as "Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or, again "Times of Turmoil".  In this production, Otello is not primarily a character made ill by jealousy and who has lost control of his desires as both Shakespeare and Verdi's librettist Arrigo Boito have drawn him. This Otello is, fundamentally, a soldier.   As such he emphasises some problematic scenes of dialogue between Otello and Desdemona." Rude am I in my speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace" (Shakespeare Act 3 Scene 1). This may be interpreted as Otello being more likely to resolve problems, not by discussion and negotiation, but by force. He calls his woman "whore" in the presence of the Venetian ambassador as he pulls her hair.  At the end he crushes her skull against the bedpost.
 
The overtly racist prejudices which one finds in the character of Otello as written by Shakespeare and in the time of Verdi  - Verdi, Boito and publisher Ricordi spoke of the "Otello" character as being from the "Chocolate Project" - are transformed by Kriegenburg to become the ravings of a post-traumatically disordered soldier. Otello's mistrust in the loyalty of Desdemona turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.   How should one come close to portraying this internally destroyed man on stage? José Cura's singing reflects this character and his psychological destruction impressively, even if not quite voluntarily. The striking, powerful-dark tenor voice is working very hard, and the voice gesticulates as potently as the actor on stage.  Together, this brings s great expressive power  to the character that produces impressive climaxes that threaten to tear the very fabric of the musical phrases themselves..
 
 Patrick Summers, the American conductor who substituted for the original choice, Paolo Carignani, uses this power in a sensible, and fulminating, manner linked to the score. Verdi's original composition had a tendency towards a fragmenting of the music. Summers, however, is not very much interested in the styles of tradition, since these were very largely concerned with giving space to every vanity of the singing voice. Instead, Summers insists upon bringing the orchestra of the German Opera to a clear, bright intonation and to stable, exact tempi. This is a pattern that he insists upon in respect of the singers too. Thus there originates a transparency, which makes the possibilities for orchestral variations in Jagos drinking song extremely clear and also enables the many facets of this complex song to be made with crystal clarity.  In the love duet of Otello and Desdemona Summers creates a musical river upon whose waves the melodies bob about like enchanted boats not having the luxury of having time stand still for them.
 
Anja Harteros works in opposition to the succinct and taut beginning that contrives to control and to constrain her character Desdemona.  Desdemona has no real chance against the suspicions of Otello because her dynamism towards challenging and contradicting him runs desperately into emptiness. The abundantly flowing lyrical expression of Anja Harteros is a persisting element in this dramatic fall. The Song of the Pasture in the last act and the following Ave Maria of the woman anticipating her own demise, have become one of those rare opera moments, which one does not easily forget.  How wonderfully this powerful and yet, at the same time, so soft soprano voice is able to animate the almost imperceptible phrases.   Harteros allows them to float and makes them transparently evident as the most dear and saddest expression of sorrow and regret.  If proof were ever needed, this gave it in abundance as a statement of the virtually unrivalled creative power of this wonderful singer.
 
Summers supported Anja Harteros and carried countless creative nuances with virtually symbiotic sensitivity. The intensity, with which Kriegenburg analyses Otello and Desdemona psychologically, and how he creates the disclosure of the self-destruction inherent in the character of Desdemona is noteworthy and is rare on the opera stage. However, she has an opposing character in Jago who becomes a side figure. Instead of carrying out an extensive pattern of intrigue, he needs only to plant in Otello the seeds of suspicion.   Otello's lack of empathy and his ethical disorientation does the rest. Consequently Jagos other schemes and plots for exhaustive wickedness begin to appear comparatively superfluous and over - complicated. He must sing his nihilistic credo to evil in a circle of children so that he might be emphasised as being rather dangerous. Zeljko Lucic sang Jago with great vocal authority until the high A of the drinking song.  One could have made something of of the character given his voice but, in truth, his singing was just too nice and, in addition, his figure remained conventional and pale.
 
 Thus Kriegenburg has introduced a thoroughly sensitive, but not in the last analysis, totally new interpretation.   The staging was, in fact, more conventional than the scenery promised. It is really astonishing, that Kriegenburg creates his conceptual superstructure, war and refugee-settling relatively inoffensively at a time in which one learns in this country to come to terms with the word "War" again - albeit gradually!  Therein lies a potential for political provocation that would have helped the "boos" which the director received at the end to have some semblance of being correct.
 
Translation by Gudrun of the article in Berliner Zeitung 1.6.2010 Peter Uehling

 

Otello: Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2nd June 2010

OperaBritannia

Saturday, 05 June 2010

 

As the curtain went up, we saw most of the chorus ranged in its floor-to-ceiling honeycomb of cells which are supposedly the interior of a refugee camp. A few stood downstage and during the opening bars applied black make-up to their faces. Reading the German reviews, this was one of the controversial aspects of Andreas Kriegenburg’s production which elicited boos from the audience on the opening night. Unlike Bieito’s Stuttgart Parsifal, where the appearance of the pregnant girl in the prelude is the key to his interpretation, it is unclear what the application of make-up signifies.  I thought perhaps they were members of the Resistance, applying camouflage before going on a night raid. But these were not combatants.  Did it mean any one of us could be Otello; therefore any one of us could be cuckolded?  It certainly wasn’t saying that one in thirty of the population of Berlin is black.  In fact, although there is unquestionably a racist theme in the original play, Kriegenburg seens to have chosen to look at the deconstruction of Otello through a different prism.

So the ‘blacking up’ remains unfathomable. Apparently Otello and his men are under siege in a refugee camp on an island between Europe and Africa and these blackened faces are symbolic of the African refugees one sees in places like the Canaries or Malta. What a shame there are no black singers in the chorus to illustrate the point. Don’t ask me why this handful use black make up whereas José Cura is resplendent in golden brown. Furthermore, there is no discernible reason why Otello’s men are running a refugee camp, presumably full of economic migrants, eager to pick up the coins Iago scatters. Instead of creating a sense of claustrophobia and attrition which could lead to a collapse in morale and discipline, this place seemed to be a happy family summer camp in Germany with teddy bears, dolls and clean children.  

But opera is make-believe and I must allow the director to do his politically correct duty and nod in the direction of the plight of African economic migrants, especially since he has shied away from playing the race card. I suppose it would have been too big a transposition to make Otello a Turk and tackle racism head-on in an arena a German audience would understand, since in Shakespeare he is a Christian convert who is at war with the Turks.

So who is Kriegenburg’s Otello? First we are introduced to Zelijko Lucic’s Iago, who lights up the stage with charisma. This Serbian baritone is clearly one of the foremost international exponents of Verdi, having sung all the key baritone roles at the Met, the Royal Opera House and the top German houses.  Iago seems to play with the younger officers, like a cat with mice, getting Cassio drunk so that he wounds Montano. Otello storms onto the stage, deals swiftly with the insubordination by demoting Cassio and immediately reasserts his authority as supreme leader.

Then we switch to Otello and Desdemona’s bedroom in the local 5 star hotel (just kidding.)  It certainly doesn’t seem to bear any relation to the refugee camp, nor is it anything like the usual tent of an occupying army general. Here Anja Harteros as Desdemona takes my breath away.  She has all the facility of Joan Sutherland, who sadly I never heard live in her prime. In addition she produced achingly beautiful sounds, stunning pianissimi, is able to float phrases at will and throughout (except for one moment in the Ave Maria) was superbly on pitch.

José Cura isviewed as the star of this production and, it has to be said, tenors who can do justice to Verdi are few and far between. Last time I heard him it was in Fanciulla which didn’t really give him an opportunity to shine. I think as Otello he is in his element. He sang this role in what I would describe as an Italianate manner. At times the quality of his voice was reminiscent of Pavarotti, which is meant as a compliment. He was at times a little ahead of the beat and, unlike the other principals, I don’t think he watched the beat (in what is a rather deep pit) too closely. This was fine in his solo arias, but his contributions rocked slightly in the ensembles. I wonder if this means he was not available for all the rehearsals, or that his tempi are just wayward? Even so, I am inclined to blame Patrick Summers (musical direction) who should have been more flexible and sensitive in following his star tenor.

What was so special about this particular scene was just how convincing these two principals were at conveying the depth and passion of their love for one another. This is the crux of Kriegenburg’s reading of Otello.  Anja Harteros was incredibly seductive, showing her complete devotion to her warlord husband whom she had followed into battle and Cura convinced me he was besotted.  In previous productions, Otello lashes out because of a bruised male ego, punishing the wife who has shamed him in front of his men.  In this interpretation I thought of a friend’s father who committed suicide when he thought his beloved wife didn’t love him anymore. This love seemed so complete, so essential to Otello’s way of being that it felt entirely credible that the loss of it would precipitate a descent into a kind of madness.

In the second act we see Iago sow the seeds of doubt in Otello’s mind. We are supposed to feel the oppressive atmosphere as the army remains confined, waiting for news of release, courtesy of the Venetian fleet. Again Iago uses drink to put further pressure on his victim. Behind them in his cell there is one character endlessly building and rebuilding a symbolic house of cards, another folds an interminable number of army blankets, a woman who must have been abused gyrates slowly like a zoo animal in its pen.

The premise described in the programme is that Otello is a great warlord who knows how to direct his troops and knows how to win. This is the behaviour pattern which he understands. The profundity of his love for Desdemona and her love for him – sufficiently unboundaried for her to follow him into a war zone in order to be at his side and in his bed – paradoxically offers a glimpse of utopia but at the same time poses the greatest threat to his way of being. This is an existential issue from early Sartre. To love someone as utterly as he does implies the sublimation of oneself to the Other. As a great warrior he is virtually invulnerable; to be human and in love is to make oneself vulnerable. To lose control in the arms of his beloved represents a greater threat to Otello, the warrior than reverting to the way of being which he knows and understands. He is experiencing the greatness happiness of his life and yet that happiness springs a trap.

So when Iago presents Otello with the handkerchief, the symbol of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, appropriated to her subsequent regret by Emilia (a moving performance by Liane Keegan,) we witness the beginning of Otello’s implosion. He tears the handkerchief into strips and knots it to make a sort of garrotte. But Cura very ably manifests that Otello is being pulled apart by an inner conflict. Passion as deep as this cannot be switched off. He veers between love and hate, but one feels that some of the hate in part is directed inward. It is no surprise that in the final scene, he kills her lovingly – another existential paradox. Then, finding she was innocent, he kills himself and attempts to hold her in his arms in death.

This was an acting tour de force from Cura and he certainly negotiated his way around the notes with apparent ease. At one point when he is preparing to kill Desdemona, he sings with Harteros’ head virtually in his mouth, reminiscent of a great golden lion, toying with its prey. Their duets have a thrilling intensity.

The opening of the final bedroom scene is of course Desdemona’s greatest moment, in which she sings the "Willow Song" and then the "Ave Maria". There was some fine cor anglais playing, but I was disappointed, not for the first time, at the ensuing intonation in the clarinets and at more glitches in orchestral ensemble. In the "Ave Maria", at the lowest point in her register, Harteros produced a couple of notes which were under pitch, which surprised me. As both Lucic and Cura had previously been slightly flat in descending phrases, I began to wonder if this was a problem with the acoustics in the house. The foyer of the Deutsche Oper is attractive and spacious enough, however the interior of the auditorium is rather claustrophobic - looking as if it is lined with MDF and, rather disturbingly, where I was sitting, I could hear some individual chorus voices and every single mistake anyone made which was suggestive of a very dry acoustic. It made me wonder if this is a really difficult house in which to sing, rather compounded by the closed-in, claustrophobic set behind them.

The offstage Verdian trumpets and the brass playing generally was superb; the strings as well as the singers suffered from lack of resonance. I think the wind was the weakest section, rather as if they don’t play together very often.  To my ear they sounded under-rehearsed and lacking in confidence. So much great singing and playing is about the ends of phrases and neither the orchestra nor the chorus was sufficiently concerted about coming off a chord for my taste. Again I lay this at the feet of Patrick Summers, who should also have addressed the wind intonation to make life easier for his principals.

I don’t think I remember a curtain call at the end of the second act before the interval before. I’m not saying the principals didn’t deserve it: they did. The applause after the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" and cries of ‘Brava’ must have lasted about five minutes while Harteros lay elegantly on the bed. What an extraordinary voice this is, and its owner is slim and beautiful and a convincing actress. I felt almost as much of a buzz as I do each time I see Domingo live. As for the applause at the end of the opera, I lost count of the curtain calls and I am convinced the applause lasted more than fifteen minutes. It was almost 10.45pm by the time the audience left. It was a night of extraordinary singing and I wasn’t unduly distracted by the production. One might wonder just what motivated Iago if it wasn’t racism or jealousy of his position as a great military leader, but I think any man would be jealous of this Desdemona’s adoration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kira's Stream of Conscious Comments on the Berlin Otello

 

José Cura is the epitome of Otello. (Even though right now, Kira's mind is stuck on Turandot!)

So we journeyed to Berlin to see the greatest Otello sing in a production we have been told was (a) awful or (b) wonderful.  Which would it be?  I think it all comes down to suspension:  there was much novel and intriguing in the director’s vision, but it required a whole lot of ignoring both Verdi and Shakespeare to accept Kriegenburg's version.

Here we go:

Act 1: There were 69 (?) beds on stage. All stacked. And a TV screen in each sleeping area. After the first ten minutes, these were rendered useless and never used again. Now that requires a real suspension:  no one would find escape from the camp by watching a movie or favorite TV show?  And if centrally controlled (and nothing in the production would indicate any sort of mind control), wouldn’t the powers that be want to stupefy the crowd with mindless entertainment?  Alas.

Each sleeping area had one or two people in them. That's a lot of people to have on stage. Even if they're stacked vertically.  And then there were the phantom wanderers who would drift in and across, until someone would grab them and lead them away.  Time after time.  Otello emerges from the crowd to sing Esultate almost as an afterthought—a less magnetic actor would have been totally lost but of course Cura just pulls the audience into his performance. After Otello goes off with Desdemona and Emilia in tow, a desk in dragged on stage and Cassio gets situated.  Yosep Kang, who plays Cassio, is an attractive lyric tenor who brought an innocent intensity to the role.  As he gets pressured by Iago and Rodrigo, he gets drunk and things get out of control; the plethora of people on stage begins throwing paper balls at him. That's a lot of garbage. And no one ever did a very good job up the mess before the love duet. To create some sort of privacy,  a divider with an alcove bed came down blocking out the rest of the world. Separating them from the outside.

Act 2: Iago's credo wasn't bad. Very nice, strong voice; however, the way Zeljko Lucic went about poking and prodding Otello, trying to dredge up the hidden insecurities, reminded me of  Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter—way over the top.

Otello's fits of rage and inability to control his emotions made for interesting beatings towards the stage props--desk being upturned, chairs being thrown, water being spilled all over the stage, pictures being lit on fire with the fire marshal waiting nervously in the wings. Desdemona and Otello interacted well, even when he was slowly spiraling into insanity.  *Side note* The dancers in the back were, in a strained way, portraying a more extreme story of Otello. They're together, but she leaves. Wondering, he goes to look for her and sees her with another man. As she and the man dance. They share a coat. The other is there, watching.

Act 3: Throughout the opera, there was an adorable little girl who is always involved in the action. After Iago's made Otello borderline crazy and Desdemona seemed never able to take a hint, she gently pats his head as he gasps and sobs as no other Otello can. It is a wonderful moment.

The children were, in fact often useful if you don’t mind a little course manipulation.  While Iago was goading on Cassio, Otello hides among the children's chorus. They also snatch the handkerchief from Cassio and scatter after the deed was done. The hankie has a life of its own, much more dominant in this production than in any other I have seen.  After attacking Desdemona in front of Lodovico, Otello can be seen off to the side of the stage attempting to sooth his head with the handkerchief full of ice. When that doesn't help and he succumbs to the insanity; he collapses and begins to maniacally rip the handkerchief into strips. After, with a crazed facial expression, he begins to tie the strips together into one long string of scraps. 

*Side note* The couple in the back can now be seen in the corner. For a time before the big crescendo, they simply go back and forth from each other; she dances some strange little awkward dance. Subtle movements of hesitation. During the big crescendo of the final song of the act, the guy places a bag over the woman's head, suffocating her as Otello's world crashes around him. After she stops struggling, he holds her until curtain.

Act 4: Desdemona begins the act by throwing her earrings into the water bowl. OK.  Why?  Her Willow Song is good. After she's asleep, Otello comes in, notices the earrings, throws them back into the water bowl.  Why?  Then takes off his jacket and takes his gun out of the holster. After Desdemona wakes up, he ties her hands together with the strips of the handkerchief that have been soaked (someone wanna explain the water theme?). With her hands tied around the bed post, Otello uses that for her execution. Squeezing her neck into the bed post, Desdemona dies.

Emilia arrives to rouse the forces; she grabs the gun and threatens to shoot her husband, but Otello stops her by taking the gun.  Emilia encourages him to do the deed but he hesitates and Iago simply walks up to him, shoves the gun aside, and walks off the stage.  No one tries to stop him or go after him.  Otello knows it is all over, takes his gun and a pillow, shoots himself, and snuggles up to Desdemona so both die in a seated position.  That was pretty cool.

So, how was it?  The production wasn’t scandalous or outrageous, but neither was it a meaningful re-imagination of the story.  It was a personal vision by the director imposed on a story that wasn’t meant to head that direction.  There were several innovative ideas but as a whole, the opera really came alive only when the war is hell theme lifted at the start of Act III and the real story of Otello took center place.

The singing actors were fabulous, and of course the most fabulous of all was José Cura.  He didn’t just sing the role; he lived it.  Anja Harteros was vocally wonderful but reticent as Desdemona, a little bit on the cool side, though her Act IV arias left few dry eyes in the auditorium.  Zeljko Lucic sang well but was cartoonish in his actions, which made the fact no one could see through his evilness a bit unbelievable.  So, all in all, a great Otello!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another View of the Berlin Otello

Next Week:  The opera proper

 

The Tale of Two Operas – Otello in Berlin

Part I:  War is Bad

Director Andreas Kriegenburg has a lot to say about war, it’s immediate and long-term effects on perpetrator and victim, the fundamental inhumanity of taking up arms against another for reasons unknown, the violence that haunts all who touch or are touched by battle, the mental and emotional baggage that casts shadows eternal.  Those views were front and center in his staging of Otello at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin:  he offered two operas in one, the first a red hot indictment against war generic, the second a shoe-horning of the great Verdi tragedy into the director’s vision.  The first fills the stage with hollow shells of men, women and children displaced by the war, the second with military men who plot siege and destruction against the ultimate strategic target – Desdemona.

Kriegenburg demands extreme suspension of disbelief: Forget natives watching anxiously as the triumphant fleet battles wind and wave to land after routing the Turks and saving the commonwealth; don’t think of the cheers of the grateful citizenry when the heroic general clamors down the gangplank and into the arms of his waiting wife:  Kriegenburg has a different vision.  The isolated island saved from invasion is replaced by a refugee camp, filled with those who have fled the battle ground for the relative safety of a temporary city made of bunks and boredom.  For those trapped between ravages of war and mundane safety, Otello’s return is but a momentary diversion in the monotony of existence.  Not even the battle triumphant, that final victory that should open the gates of the camp for a swift and joyous return home, registers with these walking wounded:  there is no escape from war.

Forget the island of Cyprus and its isolated, claustrophobic milieu.  Wherever Kriegenburg places his drama, it appears to be a landlocked, barren, primitive area, the battle waged with tanks and guns and missiles, the antiseptic, anonymous carnage of twenty-first century warfare broadcast in high definition for those who care to watch.  We know this because each cubicle has a television installed, and during the opening the refugees huddle in their bunks to watch the bombs explode and the tanks roar over arid terrain.  The screens show no evidence of victory—war is an endless horror; instead they simply go black when Otello arrives exultant.  The cries of relief that the general is safe ring hollow:  was he ever in danger?  In Verdi, the crowd witnesses man against indomitable nature and measures the greatness of its leader not only in his defeat of the common enemy but in his conquering of the cosmic storm.  In Kriegenburg’s modern world of warfare, generals delegate operations and work strategic battle plans thousands of miles from the front, never experiencing confrontation with mortality, never personally handling a weapon, never seeing firsthand the bloodshed they cause.   

Forget the limitations imposed by a pre-electronic time period.  This is a modern event, complete with cable news feeds and charitable giving of clothing by those lucky enough to be removed from the violence. But this modernity has limits:  once the war ends, no one, not even the children, turns on the TV to watch escapist fare and to live vicariously through the lives of actors.  There are no phones, no computers, no cell phones, no radios.  It’s as if the successful conclusion of the war throws the community backwards 100 years, strips them of the every tool and every device that allows the twin development of mass communication and mass destruction to become commonplace. 

Forget also the meme of minority angst, unless one counts the awkward break in the forth wall when the curtain rises prior to Act I and a handful of men, women, and children step forward in silence to smudge their faces with black—was it a subtle message that we are all one regardless of skin, or an almost embarrassingly transparent nod to both Shakespeare and Verdi from a director who avoids core themes for his war-is-hell vision? Ignore as well the lack of reference to religion. Kriegenburg’s Otello succumbs not to the madness of his color or the conflict inherent between his new and old faith or even to the disabling bouts of epilepsy or his long history of selling his soul to the highest bidder, but to the post trauma stress: in the end, Otello murders Desdemona because she is the final enemy in the country of his diseased soldier’s mind.

The Stage:  Harald Thor presents a refugee camp established within a building, with bunks lining the back of the stage, seven rows high, ten columns wide, a hive of ceaseless activity.  Suitcases announcing the temporary nature of the refugees’ stay decorate the top row. The triangle shape is broken in the corner by the filthy washroom composed of three sinks and split with three ladders that run from the floor to the top.  Each bunk has a curtain but Acts I and II play out in front of the masses.  Each cubicle holds between one and three refugees; each contains a mattress, blanket, and television.  Although the TV sets remain off after the opening victory, activity, mostly mundane and repetitive, is constant:  one young man builds card houses; a trio play cat’s cradle endlessly; one folds a seemingly endless supply of blankets with excruciating precision; a man mindlessly massages his mate top to bottom, back to front.  A couple kisses and kiss again.  Someone reads.  A mother nurses; a couple fights; a young woman changes shirts and skirts. Few ever leave the bunks or change activity.  Soldiers climb the ladders to no purpose, then climb down and disappear.  Periodically, female refugees climb a few rungs and sway in synchronicity to the music. One set of bunks jut into the open stage at the midway point; it is filled with people, mainly children.  The stage proper is littered with refugees, mostly hoards of children and a few lost souls who wander aimlessly, innocent victims of the ravages of war.  A pregnant woman massages her belly and seems in perpetual labor but never gives birth.  On occasion, a black-clad woman dances stage left while her navy-clad lover watches in growing dismay and anger.

Two stuffed grey leather chairs and small table are featured stage right, with Iago and Rodrigo in residence as the crowd sings.  Stage left, Desdemona and Emilia sit unmoving on suitcases, backs to the audience, new refugees destined to be marked by the unstoppable violence of war.

At strategic moments, a desk and chair are moved into place stage left, where first Cassio and then Otello conduct business.

The only exception to the busy stagecraft of the refugee camp is the Act I love duet and the totality of Act IV, when the bunks are obscured with the austere bedroom of Otello and Desdemona: dark wood paneling, a brightly lit double bed with white coverlet, and a companion spotlighted wash basin. 

Costumes:  Andrea Schraad offers modern rag-bag chic as the operative meme in dressing the crowd.  The children are dressed in casual apparel that one could find on the streets of most modern cities. Otello wears (and frequently takes off) his long outerwear military coat;  Emilia wears the same dress throughout the opera;  Desdemona wears the same blue long-waist dress and black heels until Act IV when she is dressed alternatively in her wedding gown and her night gown:  does time simply cease to advance in this refugee camp? 

Questions We Still Puzzle Over: 

Water.  Water of life, baptism, washing away of sins, purity, birth or rebirth, the crossing over from life to death—water can symbolize a host of concepts.  In this production, the bedroom basin is bathed in light; in Act I, Otello and Desdemona sensually wash each other, with Desdemona using her dampened strawberry-covered handkerchief to caress her husband; in Act II, Desdemona pours bottled water on her hankie to placate her spouse.  Later, in Act III, Otello pours ice cubes into the hankie to cool his brow and neck after he attacks Desdemona.  In the last Act, Desdemona tosses her earrings into the basin, Otello first digs them out and then tosses them back in before soaking the remnants of the hankie and then wringing it out.  Water is a recurrent theme, emphasized in each act, yet to what end?   What is the purpose of constantly drenching the symbol of fidelity in water?  Why toss the earrings in?  Is it Desdemona denouncing the erotic to embrace the spiritual in her final moments?

Clothes.  Otello arrives in full overcoat over shirt and suspenders, even though all action takes place indoors and most of the officers appear to be wearing the uniform of the day under the long coat.  Desdemona first appears in a coat, though Emilia does not.  In the love duet, long after she arrives, Desdemona finally takes of her coat and puts it on the bed;  Otello also takes his off and throws it to the ground; Desdemona then picks it up and puts it on (either in an attempt to take on his burdens or to climb inside the skin of her husband, to feel safe within the cocoon of his most obvious persona, to smother herself in his scent and warmth).  Later, after some foreplay involving the two of them and the coat, Otello removes it from Desdemona and lays it at her feet (obviously laying all that he is at her disposal); she walks across it to him. In later acts, the coat is on and then off, seems to have a life of its own as it appears on the back of a chair, then on the floor, then amidst the children.  In Act IV, Desdemona first appears in her wedding gown, takes it off for the Willow Song, then puts it back on for Ave Maria.  Otello arrives in his short officer’s jacket with holster, the first time he has worn it; he immediately pulls it off and dumps it on the floor. And the principles are not the only ones who invest time and energy in the nuances of garments:  extras kept changing clothes as well, especially one woman in a cubicle who does nothing else throughout the opera but put on and take off clothes. 

Dance. Why the pantomime of the tragedy ‘danced’ in the background?  The stories are not identical, since the man witnesses the infidelity but it proved more of a distraction than an illumination. 

Female zombies:  Why were only the women assigned mindlessness?  An old woman clutches a teddy bear and aimlessly wandered the stage; a younger woman stares through vacant eyes and rambles.  A black-clad woman dances an abstract dance behind Otello.  Men may engage in repetitive action, but they do so within their cubicles and never resort to violence or aggression (with a single exception, caused by the action of a woman).  Why?

 

 

The Tale of Two Operas – Otello in Berlin

Part 2:  Prologue to Tragedy (Act I)

The audience has taken its seats, the orchestra has tuned, the conductor has been applauded and an anticipatory hush has take over the auditorium: Verdi’s torrent of sound that so perfectly captures both the fury of the storm and the anxiety of the citizens of Cyprus is imminent.  It is the moment of suspension, of perfect balance between expectations and reality, the moment before the evening explodes with sonic memories.  The curtain rises…..

The instruments remain silent.  No storm, just a stage full of costumed individuals silently staring back at the audience. A dozen step forward.  Without emotion, half paint their faces in black grease paint, smudging features as they dare us to understand how these uniformly white men, women, and children with streaks of black factor into Verdi’s opera. The fourth wall is ripped asunder, a cryptic message delivered.  The audience is no longer in bliss; instead, they are shifting uncomfortable, exchanging puzzled glances, readjusting expectations.    

The crowd steps back in silence.  Only now does the conductor raise the baton, the players ready their instrument; only now can the opera begin. And only now do we have time to take in the vision of director Andreas Kriegenburg brought to life by Harald Thor’s sets and Andrea Schraad’s costumes. The back of the stage is filled with rows of bunks on top of curtained bunks (curtains are tied back), a filthy three-sink bathroom, a bunk bed jutting out mid stage, three ladders leading to the top row where suitcases are lined.  Each bunk has a TV; all are turned to the same images, a non-commercial, no-talking-head channel that features rapid fire cut-away videos of war in MTV style: tanks rising over dunes, missiles being fired, explosions destroying.  The final battle of the war is underway and these refugees from the battle ground are watching – the outcome will determine their fate. They sit one or more to a bunk, dressed in various rag-bag garments, watching a battle in an arid, cloudless land while singing about a tempest raging off-shore that threatens their already victorious general.  We are trapped inside a warehouse where human lives are being stored.

Stage front, a different tableaux: Iago and Roderigo sit in grey leather chairs, disengaged from the chorus as Iago wishes the sea would swallow Otello; opposite them, backs to the audience, Desdemona in her coat and Emilia sit on suitcases, scarcely moving, curiously immune to the drama surrounding them or the fate of Desdemona’s husband; they, too, are refugees. Cassio, the young lieutenant, paces anxiously.

The usual joy expressed by the people for the general’s safe delivery from the storm is replaced with dark television screens and a return to the enforced normalcy of the refugee camp. There is no sign of excitement about incipient repatriation following the victory.  Otello strides in from stage right, unaccompanied by the entourage that swarm leaders of his rank, especially in moments of glory; so anticlimactic is the arrival onto this overstuffed stage that a presence less forceful than José Cura would have rendered the arrival completely invisible.  As it is, the walk drains the triumph from the triumphant return and turns his exclamation of success into an afterthought of appeasement. He is in full military dress, including overcoat, and enters with an air of a man returning home at the end of a day at work rather than a warrior who has watched his final enemy go down in defeat. Desdemona finally stirs, standing to welcome her husband.  After gentle, knowing smiles before Otello turns to announce the victory and greet Cassio and Iago.  Duty completed, Otello returns to Desdemona with a smile, picks up her suitcase, and with Emilia in tow, retires.  The war has ended.  Long live the war.  Yawn.

Children gather. Cassio hands out candles and candy to children at play, men and women begin their monotonous activities in the bunks, a handful of women wander mindlessly across the stage, a pregnant woman roams, a few women take up their places at the sinks.  While Iago and Roderigo scheme, a group of children solemnly step to the edge of the stage to once again break the fourth wall: they hold up in wordless lament a series of drawings of the horrors of war—but so pale and small are the sketches that unless you were seated close or peering through opera glasses the pictures are indecipherable and carried little weight. 

 

 

A desk appears stage left and Cassio begins the work of the day.  Iago and Roderigo are now free to implement their plan.  Soldiers carry on bottles of beer to hand out to the refugees—this warehouse does have its perks—and Cassio is coaxed into drinking a toast to Otello’s success.  In short order, the lieutenant is stumbling, the bunkmates are enthusiastically encouraging, and Montano arrives.  At this place in Verdi, the women are scurrying away, fleeing the potential violence while men are trying to intervene in the name of peace.  In this staging, men and women push the battle onward, showering the stage with balls of paper in defiance of the meme that they have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed by war:  these victims goad the battle onward to ever increasing violence until Montano is injured and Otello, still in his overcoat, returns. 

This is Otello at his imperial best, the take-charge leader who instantly sizes up the situation and makes an immediate tactical decision:  Cassio is clearly drunk, Montano is injured, both have weapons in hand; his personal attaché, Iago, is the only senior leader who appears to be in control.  Otello’s disappointment with Cassio is clear but his anger is held in check until Desdemona, also still in her coat, arrives, disturbed by the noise and the absence of her husband.  At this moment, Otello makes the single strategic mistake that drives the tragedy:  he allows his protective feelings for Desdemona to drive his actions.  His emotional mind takes over and he replaces Cassio with Iago, not only in terms of military responsibility but in terms of relationships: the young man who had been hand-picked and promoted over the older soldier in an act that spurs Iago’s jealousy and hatred is the first casualty of the opera.  The undercurrent of emotional dissonance in this act will propel the drama to its tragic end.

Set designer Thor brings order from chaos for the love duet by lowering an alcove into place that separates Otello and Desdemona from the disconcerting masses of refugees, a welcome respite for overworked senses. The set is now sparsely decorated, with only the double bed and wash basin as props. Though moments earlier Otello had been upset because the commotion roused Desdemona from sleep, the spotlighted bed with its white covers is immaculately prepared.  Desdemona takes her coat off at last, showcasing a sleeveless royal blue, dropped waist dress and black heels—attire better suited for a cocktail party than a refugee camp. Otello steps to the basin where he removes his coat and throws it to the front of the stage.  Desdemona joins him for a ritual cleansing, each of the lovers taking turns pouring water over each other’s hands and arms.  Two important themes emerge: Desdemona’s strawberry strewn handkerchief and Otello’s epilepsy, the yin-yang of destruction. [The meaning of water continues to elude us.]

The handkerchief will come to represent different things to different people as the opera progresses.  Desdemona carries it next to her heart as the gift she received from Otello, a memento of the moment she first knew he loved her.  Iago uses it a focal point to attract and trap Otello into a destructive web of jealousy. In truth, however, the only power the handkerchief has is the power Otello invests in it.  In act III, Otello will reveal that ‘A mighty sorceress disposed its secret weave/ It contains the lofty magic of a talisman.’  The Shakespeare play adds more detail: an Egyptian sorceress gave it to his mother and told her that it would make her desirable and keep Othello’s father loyal, but if she lost it or gave it away, Othello’s father would leave her. Othello’s mother gave him the magic handkerchief on her deathbed, instructing him to give it to the woman he desires to marry.  In both play and opera the handkerchief comes to represent the magic of marital fidelity, eternal loyalty, even virginal sacrifice (the red strawberries on the white background strongly suggest the bloodstains left on the sheets of a virgin’s wedding night).   Thus Desdemona dips something far more important than a handkerchief in the basin and presses it gently against her husband:  the symbol of fidelity become the symbol of sexual intimacy, a movement from chaste reserve to womanly desire and commitment to one man.

In an opera where events are heard and not seen, it comes as no surprise that when Otello has his epileptic seizure in Act I that Desdemona doesn’t notice; instead, she has shrugged herself into Otello’s big coat and reacts to its weight and warmth in ways that can be interpreted as taking the weight of his wounded warrior mind onto her frail shoulders; attempting to understand the man who is her husband by entering his world via the coat; or, in a more sexually provocative proposition, simply engaging in symbolic role-reversal foreplay.  While Desdemona is fondling the coat, Otello has reach crisis and flails water around, pressing himself into the wall with fierce determination until the one attack he cannot escape passes.  Although downplayed in the production, these mental misfirings are critical in Shakespeare, even to the point that Shakespeare suggests Othello experiences one when strangling his wife: Desdemona whispers: 

And yet I fear you; for you are fatal then
When your eyes roll so . . . .
Othello (Act V; 2; 37-38)

The seizure passes, Otello, Desdemona and the coat make their way to the bed where Desdemona sways within the fabric as Otello holds her, the act of pulling away creating such intolerable heat that Desdemona sheds the heavy garment like a second skin.  Otello lays it on the ground for her to step across: Otello has wooed and won Desdemona in part because of his tragic background story but also because of his success as a soldier, spinning exhilarating tales of his military travels and battles. With that part of his life behind him, he can afford to sacrifice his symbol of military might; indeed, it is necessary for him to put Desdemona above all for the tragedy to ring true.  Nothing is left for the pair but to climb into bed, man to reach out for woman, and in a wonderfully long, delicate moment, conquer each other.

Comments: 

1.      Unlike some other operas, Otello has no secondary plot: this and Verdi’s extraordinary music is what gives the work its unique emotional intensity.  It is a dangerous, exposed opera for the singers, especially for the tenor, and only the bravest, most committed, and fearless can succeed in the role. Anything that distracts from the core drama, any layer of directorial message that doesn’t blend perfectly with the harmony of the work, tends to dilute and weaken. While risks must be taken in opera productions as in all artistic endeavors, those risks must add to the advancement of the story.  Few will deny Kriegenburg’s anti-war message is most welcomed by all of us weary of universal destruction, but the concept is heavy-handed and awkwardly staged and, in the end, not convincing enough to carry the weight of this enormous work. Kriegenburg seems to abandon the concept by Act III and in Act IV, when a telling statement about the horrible violence inherent in war could be visually stated, the director takes a sanitized path to destruction.

2.      Breaking the fourth wall is appropriate for some operas; Pagliacci and its famous prologue come to mind immediately.  For most opera—for most theater and most literary efforts—stepping out of character to convey a message that is not transparent to the audience breaks an important rule of storytelling. Kriegenburg does so twice, first in the opening scene and then again when the children step forward with their drawings of war’s horrors.  If the director cannot sell his vision through the storytelling proper, then the value-added of having players step out of character to expose that vision should be examined and more appropriate methods of spreading the word attempted.

3.      Shakespearean scholars can argue endlessly whether Otello was a Barbary Moor (swarthy) or a Black Moor; the artistic point was to identify him visually as an outsider and consider how that uniqueness plays out among the various personalities in leading to the inevitable tragedy. The point is rendered moot in this staging since Otello, Cassio, and Lodovico are all minorities (the latter two being Asian) as are several of the children and Kriegenburg seems hesitant to interject racial prejudice as a theme—thus the awkward opening when whites assume the outer appearance of black to no real thematic purpose. Skin tone may appropriately be used as part of the tragedy (see, for example, the Barcelona Otello) but it must be fully integrated into the storyline, not announced at the beginning of the program and then ignored for the rest of the opera.

4.      If Kriegenburg is setting up the concept that war is hell, he uses particularly sanitized images to do so:  no one is seen dying, no one is seen mourning, no mother is seen clasping a dead child or father standing in front of a rumbled home.  Kriegenburg establishes a war of machine against machine, disembodied objects guided by unseen hands, chess on a planetary level.  At least on the screens, there is no trauma that would cause the disassociation witnessed in many of the (female) chorus members, making questionable his choice of the refugee camp filled with walking wounded.  And one unanswered question:  Otello has won the war; the enemy is defeated.  Certainly this means repatriation of the refugees.  While trauma of loss may continue, doesn’t a return home to a homeland made safe and the prospect of secure future present reason enough for the camp’s inhabitants to have hope?  Why no celebration? 

5.      The danger in bringing staging to the edge of modern day is the logic displacement.  Folks can watch the war in real time, but can’t watch a comedy show or use a laptop or call a friend on a cell phone.  In Act III the refugees produce printed petitions—there must be some automation available. Modern medicine could treat Otello’s epilepsy; psychology could help those suffering from war-induced stress.  No modern war goes uncovered by the 24 hour press; Otello’s diabolical treatment of Desdemona would be shown in endless loops on the nightly news while Lodovico placed a call to Venice:  intercession would be immediate.  I can suspend disbelief with the best of them as long as there is a nugget of logic to dig for but you can’t simply unplug from the modern world when it becomes convenient…..

6.      Just thoughts: there may also be some tangential connection between the handkerchief and the epileptic seizures:  a treatment for epilepsy was an Egyptian medicine, the kind derived from the gums of certain trees that Othello refers to in Shakespeare’s play. The handkerchief that Othello reveres may have been saturated with that medicine, thus increasing the value of the piece of cloth and significantly increasing his agitation when he finds Desdemona has lost it: in his mind, there is now no barrier to stop the onslaught of seizures.  Finally, the increasing frequencies of these attacks come at a time when Otello’s military career is coming to an end, with all enemies vanquished, when he is transition from soldier to statesman, warrior to husband, decision-maker to compromiser.  The world becomes vastly more complicated even without the symptoms of physical impairment, but the emasculating weakness that comes with epilepsy undermines the man’s confidence in both bedroom and court. Of course, with an Otello as resolutely and manifestly fueled with testosterone as José Cura, such rendering of increasing impotence would be difficult . . ..

 

 

The Tale of Two Operas – Otello in Berlin

Part 3:  The Devil in the Detail (Act 2)

So, Act II:

Act II opens with the refugee camp in full bustle, Andreas Kriegenburg showcasing dozens of ways these displaced victims of war can show ennui, psychological trauma, and emotional emptiness—although it must be pointed out that not a single member of the refugee camp appeared to be physically injured or suffering from malnutrition; nor was the camp poorly maintained:  food seemed plentiful, clothing adequate, and libations free-flowing. Amidst the coming and goings, the folding and building and massages and wanderings Iago and Cassio hold a conversation, with an immediate telegraphing of good and bad:  Cassio brings candy for the children and delights when they forage in his pockets for more, Iago tosses them money for their attention and obedience.  Iago counsels Cassio that the way to regain ‘frivolous’ Bianca’s love is to beseech the ‘kindly soul’ of Desdemona to intercede on his behalf with her husband, since Desdemona is the ‘commander of our commander’ and all are aware that Otello lives just for her.  Cassio disappears to intercept Desdemona and Emilia.

Now comes Iago’s powerful soliloquy, "Credo in un Dio crudel".  Not content to keep his philosophy to himself, Iago pays the children to gather around him while he tells them of the cruel irony of the universe:  in war or peace, man is nothing, God is nothing, death is nothing; man is evil because man exists.  The words bring no clarity to Iago’s actions, other than to underline his psychopathic nature, and the children seem unmoved; they have already figured out who is good and bad in this dark play and with the insouciance of youth they will pit both against each other if doing so benefits them.  In this case, they simply continue to ask for more coins until Iago angrily disperses them.

As Iago gloats that his strategy is working because Cassio is talking with Desdemona, Otello arrives (back in his big overcoat) to see them together—but of course, they cannot really be seen because they are outside the camp proper.  Otello settles in to do his paperwork in an impossible work space; Kriegenburg somehow imagines that a business office / command center should be dead center in the middle of the camp, leaving important military papers open for all, allowing private conversation to be made public, and permitting constant interaction between the principles and the refugees.  Iago now begins to spin his web in earnest, his efforts to appear good and noble showcasing him at his most evil and seduction.  In short order he has undermined Otello faith in both Cassio and Desdemona; Otello is not fully convinced, however.  He needs proof.  Iago admits that he has none, but cautions Otello to be watchful and examine Desdemona’s words to assess guilt or innocence. 

Desdemona now arrives, still dressed in her royal blue cocktail dress, dispensing bags of clothes to the camp and plaiting the hair of two little girls as the community joyfully serenade her; it is clear that the members of the camp have rejected Iago’s nihilistic beliefs and chosen Desdemona as a symbol of hope, faith, goodness, and love.  Even Otello rebuffs Iago’s suggestion that her affections have strayed in such an outpouring of love and with such visual confirmation of her affection.

But Iago has already planted seeds of doubts by urging Otello to watch and listen carefully, and Desdemona words immediately raise the specter that Iago is right—not because Desdemona says anything wrong but because doubt always finds a way to re-enforce itself.  Desdemona’s character is the opposite of Iago’s:  she lives the code of chivalry and Christian goodness that the ensign despises and Otello, with his history, simply cannot understand: having given her word to champion Cassio, she is honor-bound to do so, even if it means risking her husband’s anger, because it is the morally right thing to do.  She is also, unlike any other principle, unafraid to approach her husband:  she is strong and independent and forthright.  Conversely, Desdemona doesn’t understand that for her husband, morality is a moving target, dependent on the highest bidder and always underlined with suspicion: there are no absolutes in the life of a mercenary.  So while Desdemona seeks to fulfill her obligation to a friend by speaking openly and without guile Otello, now alert to the possibility of betrayal, ignores the surface truth and seeks to find a deeper meaning:  now that the war is over and his military career behind him, does she see less of the hero and more of the old, black man?  He projects his doubts about his own manhood and worth outward and assumes the worst.

Desdemona continues to plead for Cassio until Otello snaps his pencil in two, symbolically representing something that snaps in his mind.  He tells her he has a headache but when she seeks to comfort him, he rejects her efforts, rejects the treasured handkerchief, and ultimately rejects Desdemona.  Unfortunately, much of this nuanced exchanged is diluted by the non-stop activity of the camp members, including an awkward modernistic dance romance that plays out behind Otello and Desdemona, with the woman sharing a coat (see Act 1 when Desdemona puts on Otello’s coat) with a man who is not her mate as her partner watches in growing anger.

Desdemona attempts to apologize by restating her love but Otello has already moved inside himself, removing himself from the external source of his doubt to find the internal source of fear and self-loathing that is always raging in him.  His background as a slave, his lack of polish and sophistication, his career choice of mercenary, his advancing age that puts his glory behind him and his incipient frailty coupled with enervating epileptic seizures, his love of a woman who has already betrayed her father by marrying him (clear in Shakespeare, not Verdi) – all the elements that churn within the man serve to isolate him.  Now, in the twilight of his career, at the very moment when he has achieved all he has ever dreamed of, he is forced to confront his greatest fears: in spite of all he has done he is still not worthy.  Desdemona’s recognition that her decision was the wrong one might well drive her into the arms of the handsome, socially acceptable and politically astute Cassio; who could doubt they were a better match? Otello is not capable of hearing Desdemona’s words of love; instead, he is lost inside his nightmare:  ‘Perhaps because I am declining/Into the valley of my years,/Perhaps because on my face/There is this darkness, She is lost and I/Am mocked and my heart breaks And I see my golden dream/Ruined in the mire.’

 During the exchange between Otello and Desdemona, Iago has secured the handkerchief from his wife Emilia while the refugee camp watches silently.

Otello’s weakness is now laid bare:  unaccustomed to give and take, incapable of stepping outside an emotional situation to think objectively, quick to make decisions and slow to reflect on their efficacy, he wallows in self-pity in his Ora è per sempre addio, where he bids farewell to all the trappings of his military successes but spares not a single word for a farewell to love: 

Now and forever, farewell, sacred memories,
Farewell sublime enchantments of my thought!
Farewell, gleaming troops, farewell victories,
Flying arrows and flying chargers!
Farewell holy, triumphant banner,
And trumpets blaring at early morning!
Sounds and songs of battle, farewell! ...
This is the end of Otello's glory.

Desperate to cling to his emotional security blanket as a successful soldier as he senses failure in his personal life, Otello begins to conflate the two.  In assessing his life, he places all he has accomplished in his military career on equal par with his short-term relationship with Desdemona. The warrior that was is the man he is, a man who forgot himself when he allowed himself to fall in love and marry.  Now he is facing betrayal that will destroy all that he has been, and his regret is not for loss of love but for loss of glory.  Just as Desdemona feels honor-bound to defend Cassio, so Otello feels honor-bound to protect his accomplishments, even if means destroying the one who loves him most.

Still, in balancing the night of love in which he found no traces of resistance or hesitation, Otello demands proof of Desdemona’s betrayal, lending the opera a momentary note of hope that he might still be convinced of Desdemona’s affection.  He is confused, uncertain, a shadow of the man who bounded onto the stage in Act I to take charge of the melee.  ‘I believe Desdemona faithful, and I believe/That she is not; I believe you honest, and I believe you disloyal . . . /I want the proof! I want certainty!!’  The irony, of course, is that there are few things in life that can be known with absolute certainty.  Relationships are based on trust or faith, something that Otello is unfamiliar with and which he now shows he is incapable of either in regards to his wife.

Iago responds that there may never be tangible proof, but if subjective evidence can be submitted, then perhaps an anecdote will do.  He proceeds to invent the story of Cassio’s dream of nights with Desdemona, with Cassio in possession of the hankie that Desdemona just used in an attempt to stay Otello’s headache. The nuance washes over him as Otello feels the blood fever rise and vows to avenge his slighted honor (Sì, pel ciel).  At this moment the tragedy is set:  convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him, Otello makes a sacred oath to exact revenge. In effect he renounces his marriage to her and commits himself to Iago as they both kneel in common vows, a new marriage between two men seeking destruction.  Without the proof he demanded, Otello has given himself over to the paranoia induced by Iago.

Of course, this being an anti-war opera, Kriegenburg has to introduce an extraneous moment of lethal tension: at one point Iago pulls his service revolver and takes aim at a handful of children sitting on a bunk, something that no military man would do, especially in front of his commanding officer.  After terrifying the kids, he hands one of them the gun and walks off to continue weaving his tale.  Otello has not been blind:  when he walks across the stage he deftly scoops the gun from the hand of the boy – but the action raises serious questions about Iago that should put Otello on his guard.  In fact, throughout the opera Iago is constantly acting in ways that telegraph he is malicious and not to be trusted; he is almost cartoonish in his overt evilness which makes it difficult to believe no one picks up on his bizarre behavior. 

On the plus side, there is a strong moment when Otello, having tossed his work desk aside without effort, picks up the photo of Desdemona and slowly walks across the stage with it in his hands, his eyes never leaving the image.  He sits in one of the gray leather chairs, then lights the photo on fire, holding it as it slowly disintegrates.  Not only was this is tension-charged moment but the intensity in José Cura’s face, its slow change as the flames lick at the image, was one of the most compelling moments in the opera.  Bravo!

COMMENTS:

First, a couple of comments about the performance of the singing actors.  Zeljko Lucic’s Iago was consistently well sung but the characterization of the nihilist was frustratingly transparent to a point where it became difficult to imagine anyone would believe anything this Iago said.  This was a rogue who operated outside of military protocol and whose words, however compelling they may have been, were constantly undermined by his over-the-top villain demeanor.  All that was missing was the stereotypical black cape and moustache to twirl.

Anja Harteros vocalized brilliantly but at times her characterization of Desdemona seemed too reserved, almost icy.  This was a proud, almost regal Desdemona who manifested a chilling quietness when she was not engaged; even the moments when she was braiding the girls’ hair she seemed distant.  Certainly the early reserved served her well in the final act, when some of the ice melted and her real fears emerged so perhaps this approach was carefully thought through and purposeful. 

José Cura was, as always, a titan in the lead role.  Every muscle in his body reacted as Otello’s would, every facial expression telegraphed Otello’s emotional state of mind, every movement added emphasis to the plot.  He never spared himself (in spite of on-going problems with allergens that affected his throat and lungs) vocally, using a wide variety of tones and colors to capture the doubt, discouragement, and final resolve.  He was mesmerizing--I can't think of a single tenor who can bring the same visceral excitement or unflagging commitment to the role.  If I have the tiniest of nitpicks, it would be this: there is less tragedy in the opera if we don’t care for Otello—if we don’t, why should we care if or how he dies in the end? I understand Cura’s position that Otello is a bad man, a murderer, a mercenary who fought his own people for money, but I would suggest that even bad men are more complex than the label.  In my perfect world, I would love to see more of an internal struggle between sanity and insanity, between the need to avenge and the need to believe—we need to hold on to the hope that at some point, Otello will realize Desdemona is a victim just as he has been a victim.  I could not and would not ask this of any other singing actor but Cura is capable of creating magic on the stage.  Gifting his Otello with a smidgeon more humanity would allow us to find emotional connection with him would added the last drop of depth to an already splendid characterization.

The play: Act II was where, for me, the Kriegenburg vision fails completely. More than 70 men, women, and children prowl the stage, the distraction of bodies in motion ripping at the fabric of the story without presenting a compelling reason for their constant presence. Iago’s Credo, essential to understanding the character, is swallowed whole by the phalanx of children and the constant movement of the people in the bunks and on the stage. Delicate moments of revelation are pitted against a competing dance that telegraphs the tragedy--it seems more a reflection on relationships as battlegrounds than a pitch for war is hell. Key plot development blend with background activity that tell us nothing.  There were moments of brilliance and charm—Desdemona braiding the hair of two small girls comes to mind—but even these moments are too often countered with Kriegenburg’s weighty message on the cost of war: a mother sits on a bunk and assiduously picks lice from the head of her daughter.

Otello is the story of a man trapped in his own world of betrayal and jealousy and uncertainty.  One of the primary reasons for setting both opera and play on an island is to isolate these characters so that, with nothing else to do, they prey upon each other; Otello’s inherent doubts about who he is and his place in society is concentrated and too easily becomes toxic is this small community; his most moving moments is when he is alone and gives voice to his fears.  Iago frequently speaks in soliloquies and is adapt at isolating characters (Rodrigo, Cassio, Otello) to manipulate them into willingly entering the web of lies he spins. We identify with Desdemona most closely while she prays alone in her room.  Even the structure of the play moves from outward to inward:  the opening scenes reflect the hustle and bustle of a community with all its various sights, sounds and distractions but over the course of the opera the activity draws inward, both physically and emotionally, until it moves to a bedroom and, ultimately, a coffin.  But it is that very sense of self-isolation that Kriegenburg denies with his teeming stage and constant movement.    

If Kriegenburg’s theme is that war destroys all who touch it and that Otello turns violent and kills because he suffers from the horrible things he has seen and done, then a far better device (to me, at least) would have been to turn the chorus into the ghosts of those he had murdered. Such constant haunting (with far fewer people) would have effectively advanced the theory that we never recover from war, no matter how it may appear, and what we do in life has consequences.  Instead, we have a stage full of people who are busy doing nothing, adding nothing, meaning nothing. In fact, the distractions, excitement, and demands of the refugee camp would have left little time for Otello to fall prey to Iago’s machinations.

 

Last thought: the gun becomes a metaphor as it is first used to threaten a child, then becomes a child's play toy, then becomes a lethal weapon used to threaten--but nothing is ever made of the gun that invites us to reflect on the violence of war.  It is waved around ineffectually, perhaps as a sign of Otello's impotence since he waves it most often and to no real purpose, but in using this symbol to tell us Otello has become incapable of taking action, Kriegenburg makes the weapon of choice for the warrior meaningless and thus undermines his own theme.

 

The Tale of Two Operas – Otello in Berlin

Part 4:  Otello Fu

A quick ending, since by now the confusion engendered by this production is obvious:  a pinch of genius served up with a dollop of self-serve importance, spiced with the singing/acting of an extraordinary pair, ultimately a bit over-cooked though still tasty. 

Act III opens with Kriegenburg muting his refugee camp motive: many (not all) curtains have been drawn to provide privacy for those on stage, with an exception for a handful of extras lounging on the bunk beds that jut out onto the stage, the vacant-gaze lady who continues to wander, and the pregnant woman whose ongoing distress signals a birth is close. One child sits on the top bunk closest to the audience. Iago sits next to Otello who sits at the desk; both are silent, though Iago’s silence is disturbed by restless antics while Otello’s silence is motionless brooding, an almost otherworldly stillness.  The herald—in military uniform—arrives; the little girl pulls off his stocking cap as he passes by, he grabs it back, then stands awkwardly waiting to be acknowledged.  Otello broods, Iago makes a face.  Moments drag painfully until the Herald blurts out that the ambassadors are arriving.  He is dismissed and as he leaves the child flicks his cap.  Iago tells Otello he will return with Cassio and provide the proof Otello demands but that Otello needs to attend to the matter of the handkerchief.  As Iago leaves stage right, Desdemona, still in her royal blue frock, enters stage left.

Otello remarks that Desdemona’s hand is moist, Shakespearean shorthand to indicate sexual promiscuity.  She responds that it is merely a young hand that has known neither grief nor age—unlike Otello’s that has known much of both—and she reminds him that it is the hand she gave to him in marriage.  He claims he is having an attack and asks her to bind his head with her handkerchief.  When she produces an ordinary white one, Otello tells her of the magic in the one he gave her and warns her that it would be ruinous if she lost it….or gave it away.  Desdemona refuses to leave to look for it, clearly misunderstanding the extent of Otello’s distress and the urgency of his request.  Instead, she calls him clever in thinking he could change the topic of conversation when she has come to ask him once more to reconsider restoring Cassio to rank.  With every mention of Cassio, Otello responds with a demand for the handkerchief until even Desdemona realizes there is no gamesmanship involved, that Otello’s anger is real.  But this Desdemona, played by Anja Harteros with great reserve, now adds great dignity to the role as she straightens to rebuff’s Otello’s assertion that she is a courtesan:  she is a Christian and chaste, loyal to her husband from whom she demands justice.  Otello attacks her violently; when she manages to break free, she flees, leaving her husband shaken and in despair.

Now comes a moment of magic, when José Cura demonstrates his deep understanding of psychology and affinity for the character. He staggers to the back bunk for Dio! mi potevi scagliar and begins to shrivel before our eyes: Cura’s shoulders slouch forward, his knees turn in, he hunches forward: this is a man in full retreat from the reality he faces. Gone are the laments for lost glory; this man is struggling to breathe, to stay alive in the face of catastrophic loss.  God could have taken from him all fame, all glory and left him in poverty and misery and he would happily have born that cross, but to take from him the smile, the radiance that makes him feel most alive, makes him feel most happy is too much, too crushing.  The warrior understands too late the price he has to pay for past triumphs as he pushes himself erect and staggers to the foot of the second bunk, the one containing the small child who senses the pain and slowly pats his head to offer comfort.  Too late:  Iago charges in to tell him proof is at hand. 

Kriegenburg offers an ingenious use of the children as a moveable barricade for Otello to hide within as Iago questions Cassio, and introduces a clever twist when the children steal the handkerchief back to give it to Otello so it can remain a critical visual part of the action.  Circumstantial evidence overheard in the conversation becomes absolute proof and Otello rages.  Justice demands that Desdemona be punished.    

The curtains of the bunks are thrown open again for Lodovico’s arrival.  He is inundated with a rush of refugees attempting to hand him typed sheets of paper – it is not clear if these are petitions to leave, statement of grievances or complaints, requests for information about family members; it is not clear why they have held on to these papers until this point.  The ambassador looks stunned, almost afraid, as dozens of the displaced try to storm through the soldiers to hand in a sheet.  Desdemona arrives and she and Emilia collect many of the papers, which she adds to a stack on the corner of the desk.  Nothing more is made of this concept and the refugees return to passive participants.

Otello makes no effort to be accommodating toward Lodovico.  He forces Desdemona to sit in the office chair (brought front and center) and grabs her hair as he mocks and torments her in front of the ambassador and the crowd.  He pulls her from the chair and thrusts her to the ground where the children, in repudiation of Iago’s opening creed, risk their lives against the angry general to protect Desdemona. Unable to abuse her with the tiny army guarding her, Otello sets to work destroying the magic handkerchief, ripping it into strips which he then ties together into a long, strong rope—special note must be made of Cura’s intensity of effort as he completes the task with maniacal intensity; at this moment he has clearly slipped free from the bounds of sanity. In the background, the dancing couple is locked in a final embrace as the man uses a garbage bag to strangle the woman.  No one leaves the stage when Otello orders all to flee; instead, both he and Desdemona swoon and lay lifeless on the stage as Iago publicly gloats.

For the final act, the bunks are obscured by the bedroom chamber, complete with its unruffled bed and water stand.  Desdemona is spotlighted sitting on the floor wearing her wedding gown, though how she managed to fit this fluffy concoction into her single suitcase remains a mystery.  At one point, Emilia brings over a box of tissues and when Desdemona throws the thin sheet up and watches it float down, Emilia tears a dozen or more sheets free and let them fall gently on Desdemona.  She smiles for a moment, then returns to her quietude.  Emilia retreats. 

Desdemona slowly rises, back pressed to the wall; she pulls off her earrings and throws them into the water basin before stumbling to the bed where she slips out of her wedding gown to reveal a white nightgown underneath.  She is waiting for Otello and her heart is heavy with sadness, and all she can think of is the words of the song her mother’s maid used to sing about the willow, with its prescient ending:  He was born for his glory and I to love him….and to die.’

The stage craft for the Willow Song was extraordinary in its simplicity and effect—a real insight into what might have been had Kriegenburg applied himself to simply telling the story without the added freight of messaging. Desdemona sings while on the edge of the bed.  Again she is in a spotlight, her white gown against the white cover set inside the dark framework of the bed placing the innocent victim inside a holy alter where she passively waits for sacrifice by the man she loves.  Harteros’s preternatural stillness now works to her advantage, as she sings without moving the song that makes so many hearts melt.  In the background, Emilia emotes, clinging to the wall, sobbing in despair, transmitting the dread we in the audience now feel.  Her Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio, Emilia, addio! ripped through the auditorium, piercing susceptible hearts.

Left alone, Desdemona once more slips into her wedding gown and kneels on the edge of the bed for her evening prayers: once more, her stillness in the spotlighted alter, the simplicity of the words, the foreshadowing of what is to come makes for a powerful moment in the opera. The story to this point may have been about Otello’s disintegration, but from now until the end of the opera, the tragedy belongs to Desdemona.

The innovations (and some of the frustrations) continue as Otello arrives.  For the first time he wears the short military coat with gun belt and holster—the first time he has been armed.  He immediately removes the gun and takes off the coat.  He fishes for the earrings and throws them back into the basin.  He pulls out the handkerchief, now fashioned into a rope, and slips it into the water. Desdemona wakes, sits on the edge of bed; in due course, Otello traps her hands on both sides of the bedstead and quickly ties her hands together so she cannot escape.  He then executes her in a suitably awkward manner by squeezing her head and neck against the wood.  Desdemona dies in a seated position.

The denouement is quick: Emilia discovers the murder, grabs the gun and points it at her husband.  She seems happy when Otello takes the gun, urging him to kill without delay—but Iago knows Otello well enough to know he is now incapable of taking such action.  He walks to the general, smirks, and shoves the gun aside as he walks out of the room.

But Iago is wrong, because Otello has one more task to do.  He moves to the bed, gently untying Desdemona’s hands.  Then he grabs a pillow, puts the gun inside it and shoots himself.  He dies a gentle death seated next to his wife.

Which, of course, begs the question:  if war is hell and war created the monster that is Otello, then why the sanitized ending?  This is the ONE chance that Kriegenburg has to demonstrate the brutality of man using weapons of violence and there is no flow of blood and no obvious pain or trauma after the shooting. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to bring the message home?  Instead, we have a moment that very nearly seems like bliss, where the love duet in Act I is mirrored with the on the bed for eternity in Act IV. 

 

Commentary:  This was an uneven Otello on several levels.  Invoking concept in setting an opera is fine, but the commitment to make sure the concept supports the work and then to see it through to the end must be realized; Kriegenburg failed to do so.  His concept was pasted on top of the story of Otello and the added weight in the first two acts simply distracted from the character development. None of the military angst that might have motivate Otello to kill his wife was felt in the tableaux of people wandering aimlessly. In fact, on the several occasions that Otello had the power of war in his hand (a gun), he was incapable of using it against another (though perfectly capable of turning it himself).  None of the refugees were wounded, none of the soldiers appeared to be injured.  And the final deaths were sanitized, with no blood anywhere, and with the two protagonists ending side by side in a graceful, loving fashion.

It was seemed clear that Kriegenburg tilted this production toward Desdemona as heroine rather than simple victim: she gave clothes to the poor, she accepted the papers (whatever they might be) that were shoved at Lodovico, the children rose up to defend her even as she stood up to Otello with a fierce urgency. She was also the only principle who was given the opportunity to have the stage to herself for her solos--all others had to contend with the collision of concept within opera, where singers competed for attention and largely losing out. Kriegenburg’s affections were obvious: Harteros was a regal and reserved Desdemona effectively raised to sainthood in the final act by means of lighting and staging—we had little choice but to embrace Desdemona.  But there is a problem in sliding so much weight of the performance toward Desdemona, however fine an artist she is, because the production in some ways short-changed the far more difficult lead role of Otello and leaves the tragedy unresolved. Without an extraordinary Otello, would we feel so profoundly for Desdemona?

This production boasted the greatest Otello on stage today and he offered a memorably, no-holds barred rendition of the complex character in both body and voice, yet at the end there seemed little sympathy for a man who had fallen from such heights to such depths. The problem, for me, was in the failure of this production to suggest the possibility that Otello might discover his error and avert the tragedy—it failed to give us hope in the face of certain hopelessness. If the decision to murder Desdemona comes too early or Otello too intractable, there is neither suspense nor sympathy for the man who is falling apart in front of us.  There is a reason why Verdi ends his tragedy in the bedroom:  we need to understand just how shaken Otello is, how much his manhood has been undermined, his worth questioned. For a man to be ultimately humiliated in his bedroom is itself a tragedy. 

So who is the real Otello?  On the surface he is a fearless and fearsome military leader, a strategic and tactical genius who by his own admission does not have the necessary refinement and gifts of other, more well-bred men. The facts of how he came to be the lion of Venice are irrefutable:  he is a mercenary who had risen through the ranks by offering his loyalties to whoever offers the best deal (not at all uncommon during this period).  He is confident of his ability as a general, but now the war is behind him and he has nothing that fits his warrior self on the horizon. And at the same time he is realizing he no longer has the means to prove his manhood—or his value to Venice—he has grown old and is shaken with increasing epileptic seizures and has taken a young wife and assumed a position of authority to the state, both areas where he is uncertain of his abilities (there are other ways to read Otello’s pleading for just another kiss in the love duet). In the short time he has in Cyprus, he has to readjust all of his realities and assume a serious of unfamiliar roles.

But to dismiss the old soldier as less sympathetic than Desdemona is to miss the essential truth of the character:  his aspirations.  Otello aspires to be a better man, a greater leader, a more loving husband.  He may have been many things in the past, but what is he at this moment?  The fact is he needs Desdemona far more than she needs him, and the tragedy is that he ends up killing the very thing he loves and needs the most. 

The question Kriegenburg never answers is whether we are locked into behavior we don’t want by reason of our history—that which we are born to be and that which we become as we move through life—or can we re-invent ourselves to be the person we most want to be.  That is where Otello is when he arrives, anxious to move beyond his past and begin his future. The tragedy isn’t just that he kills Desdemona, but that he doesn’t have the faith in himself to grab onto the new life offered him.  We need to feel that, to understand the metamorphosis that Iago halts, to understand the internal struggle that Otello fights.  Only when we experience that can we feel the larger measure of pure tragedy and weep for both Otello and Desdemona.

 

 

 

 


 

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Last Updated:  Sunday, November 24, 2013

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