Last month Jonas Kaufmann singing Verdi’s Otello was one of the hottest tickets in town and it may be only because I’m a blasé Londoner that I thought, ho humph, that was quite a good evening.
The soloists and chorus sang wonderfully of course. Resonant, mostly expressive, bang in the middle of the note except for Iago for whose anger a slightly strangled air works well. I can’t afford seats close enough to judge their facial expressions or more nuanced gestures. But most of the singers looked and behaved appropriately most of the time.
The orchestra played as robustly as ever. Every time I’ve seen Pappano conduct the singers must fight him to be heard, from the (relatively) cheap seats anyway. (I mistyped signers, which could have stood). But the musicians did pipe down respectfully for the likes of Kaufmann and they always quieten after the interval. As a choral singer I know if you keep bellowing too long you run out of muscle so perhaps that’s what happens to players under Pappano too.
Covent Garden went through a phase in the noughties of sets like multi storey car parks and this one while not in that league of awfulness was dull and so heavy on the symbolism it clunked. Literally, during one long scene change. Black and grey modernism didn’t preclude standard blousy costumes and for Emilia a bodice resembling a rib knit jumper. But she (Kai Rüütel) had a beautiful voice, like her mistress, and acted rather more convincingly.
It’s a pleasure to sit in the red velvet splendour of Covent Garden and have a drink in the bar where even the current building works can’t dim the elegance.
Given such a great package, provided the singing, playing, and the opera itself are good surely other aspects don’t matter? The worst of designs can’t ruin the sound of great opera well sung, even when Tosca‘s death is visible only from her ankles to her knees (English National Opera 2004), when the apprehensive chorus have to juggle real balls throughout their long star number (Akhnaten, ENO 2016) or clamber up and down school assembly hall wall bars (Fidelio, ROH 2011) or when poor Desdemona (Maria Agresta) had to sing draped backwards across furniture with her head hanging down on the floor for a good ten minutes (don’t try this at home). Often it’s best just to shut your eyes and listen: there’s only so much mixed identity, fairy transformation, revenge and blood feud any reasonable suspension of disbelief can take. But the story matters more when it’s a great Shakespearean tragedy.
Aye, there’s the rub. I’ve seen Othello live on stage only once, when I took my teenage son to see Lenny Henry’s debut Shakespeare role in 2009. Lenny H was quite good, until he broke into a self conscious giggle in the scene where Othello froths at the mouth. I’ve seen old film versions, including Laurence Olivier: sorry, ô great icon of British theatre, this has dated too much for me. But Paul Robeson in groundbreaking performances from the 1930s and 40s is still very moving (a black man? Playing a black man? Good gracious me…) The most memorable Otello of many I’ve seen was a 2007 dress rehearsal at ROH when Renée Fleming’s mother was ill (audience sighs) so Amanda Roocroft stepped in at short notice (audience cheers). In the beautiful willow song scene before her death Roocroft was poignant, terrified, achingly tragic.
This 2017 production was – yes, expensive professionals at their most competent. But there was something missing. Kaufmann’s singing though beautiful was slightly in traditional declamatory style. I think I do have a problem with white singers even as wonderful as Kaufmann singing Otello, since the black/white opposition is such an integral part of the plot and it barely featured here. Paramount for the opera role is the ability to sing it, and Kaufmann’s rare voice certainly fits that bill. Of course he didn’t black up: that’s no more acceptable in opera than it is now in theatre. But it’s 2017. We’re due a black singer cast as Otello in London. They do exist. Perhaps the role could be, for one of them, a path to Kaufmann level stardom?
There was no “slightly” about Maria Agresta’s “style” in this production. It WAS traditional and declamatory. This Desdemona planted her feet and gave it her all. Solidly undeterred, is how I would describe her anticipation of Otello’s murderous rage. If anyone can sing a comfortable death with their head hanging down as described above, she can, and never loses her tuning or composure. She wasn’t very interesting to watch so I listened and thought about the words, which highlighted an obvious point that to my feminist shame has never occurred to me about Desdemona and Othello before.
Yes, it’s a play/opera about Othello/Otello the social/racial outsider being cruelly manipulated into mental illness. Yes, it’s about a victorious general outmanoeuvred in the domestic sphere, a successful military and political star shamed and diminished by his jealousy into committing murder. Since 1604 the audience has been worked upon to feel pity for him in his downfall, but the principle tragedy is not his.
The tragedy is Desdemona’s. Verdi realised it: he gives her one of the most intense scenes in the repertoire. The night she is killed, Desdemona waits vulnerable in her room for her husband to arrive, alternately prays and tries to comfort herself with a sad song she remembers from childhood, pleads with herself and her maid for reassurance, lays out her wedding nightgown to remind Otello of happier times, wonders again what she has done wrong, prays again to God and to Otello to spare her, in despair tries to sleep. When her husband does appear she tries hopelessly to reason with him and explain his mistake…
Desdemona is trapped like domestic violence victims everywhere. Women attacked and murdered by men they love, or think they love, or once loved, or just knew and fell foul of. Sometimes they’ll have spent years yearning for, adoring, placating, comforting, adapting to, soothing, providing for their killers. They may or may not have irritated, hated, inflamed, bullied them along the way, they may well have character flaws of their own, they may or may not have fought back. But they are the victims, not their killers.
Right to the end, Desdemona blames herself and craves Othello’s approval, as abused partners are led to do. Here is Verdi’s version (or Boito’s, his librettist), in English translation:
A guiltless death I die…
Great God! Who did this deed?
Nobody… I myself…
Commend me to my lord…
A guiltless death I die…
And here is Shakespeare’s:
DESDEMONA A guiltless death I die.
EMILIA O, who hath done this deed?
DESDEMONA Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!
I found lots of editions on the Goodreads comparative page. They either show Othello, or Othello and Desdemona, “that” handkerchief or an abstract design. None highlight Desdemona. Contemporary theatre posters are more equal – I haven’t shown finished production ones for copyright reasons but I can feature the National Youth Theatre and Unicorn Theatre posters who I hope will welcome the advertising.
I’ve rambled around even now, I’m so used to thinking of this as Othello’s story. But my main point is: never mind tinkering with the sets, the performances, even the casting. I have a more fundamental reinterpretation. I think it’s time to rename this play: Desdemona: Moor violence in Venice.
©Jessica Norrie 2017