In a new production of Verdi’s Otello directed by Robert Wilson, the video by Tomasz Jeziorski greets the audience before music begins; a slow moving image of an elephant as it lay dying. We even see a model elephant on its side on the stage. I wonder if I was the only one to recall that Iago calls Otello a “lion”and not an “elephant” at the end of Act 3. Aside from this incongruity, the production is iconic Wilson, with empty stage illuminated by light – predominantly white and blue, with some green and red. The only prop is Desdemona’s small white bed in Act 4. The court scene is indicated by sliding arches, and there are a few other random objects like a ball and steps. The main characters wear white, mask-like make-up to wipe off facial expressions. Costumes are black, except for Desdemona’s virginal white. The chorus, in black, stays in the background, their faces invisible. The characters indicate their action in stylized hand and body movements, and they never touch one another; even the kiss of Otello and Desdemona is indicated by touching of one’s lips before the hand is extended towards the other. Singers face the audience, commanding our attention to their words.

Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Stuart Skelton (Otello) © Lucie Jansch
Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Stuart Skelton (Otello)
© Lucie Jansch

The strong influence of Japanese traditional theater, especially Noh, on Wilson’s work is again clear, and the effect of static theater stripped of props and busy stage action is mesmerizing; everything is condensed into music. In the dramatic storm scene that opens the opera, bright lights and smoke indicate the violent nature, but characters remain motionless. Likewise in the following drinking and brawl scene, only Cassio’s incessant pendulum-like swinging of his face gives the sense of his innervated state. Otello’s mental disintegration as he becomes convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, shown with a slight tilt of his body, the murder of his wife suggested with his hands over her head in bed, and his suicide, as he simply closes his eyes while standing, are all the more devastating as we hear everything – emotions and actions in Verdi’s masterful music – as if for the first time, fresh and raw.

Francesco Demuro (Cassio), Vladimir Stoyanov (Iago) and Stuart Skelton (Otello) © Lucie Jansch
Francesco Demuro (Cassio), Vladimir Stoyanov (Iago) and Stuart Skelton (Otello)
© Lucie Jansch

Zubin Mehta, at 82, was on the podium conducting the mighty Berlin Philharmonic. He emphasized the complex texture of the score as well as its chamber like quality. While others may rely on the bombastic scenes, such as the storm and the Act 3 finale, to carry the action forward, Mehta focused on exploring the depth of each bar and phrase. The strings, both a force of nature and delicate by turns, illustrated the emotions and moods of the characters in flawless ensemble. When the brass trumpeted the arrival of the Venetian fleet, its brightness offered a brief moment of respite from the increasing darkness of the overall music. Mehta’s tempi were unhurried, yet never slack; he built a tense drama leading to an inevitably tragic conclusion, never overpowering the singers. The famous ensemble that marks the end of Act 3 became, in Mehta’s hands, a masterclass of building slow tension and blossoming of contrasting emotions. At the end of the evening, the conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic received the loudest ovation, well deserved.

Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Stuart Skelton (Otello) © Lucie Jansch
Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Stuart Skelton (Otello)
© Lucie Jansch

Stuart Skelton as Otello and Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona thrived in this production, as their voices were given an opportunity to bloom and soar without busy stage action. Skelton’s tenor is muscular, yet brilliant and warm, and his high notes rang out in anger or whispered in tenderness. Yoncheva was in splendid form, her voice even throughout the registers, dominating the ensemble and yet poignant and wistful in Act 4. Her fellow Bulgarian, Vladimir Stoyanov, replacing an injured colleague with a couple of weeks’ notice, was a worthy Iago, with his sonorous baritone and sly facial expressions. Francesco Demuro’s clean tenor voice stood out as a gullible and innocent Cassio, with a grin fixed on his face. The men and women of the Philharmonia Chor Wien were splendid in the powerful storm scene and the Venetian fleet scene, as well as the tender moments of peasant songs.

There are those who dislike Wilson’s stylized, static stage production and direction. Like it or not, what he does is to force the audience to listen to the music as the sole purveyor of the characters’ thoughts and actions, while taking us into a dream like other world of calm contemplation. Otello here was given a deeper and fresher sense of quiet tragedy.

****1