Otello is usually considered to be Verdi’s most mature opera. It was one of the last ones he wrote, the result of a plot by his publisher Riccordi and the conductor Franco Faccio to draw him out of early retirement. The result is a work which combines all the aspects of Verdi’s earlier operatic style with Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Unlike the operas up to Aida, Otello does away with the strict “aria-recitative” division, moving towards the more fluid style of Wagner. Verdi also gives the orchestra a far greater importance in this work, using it to comment on the drama, rather than merely accompanying the singers.

Krassimira Stoyanova and Peter Seiffert © Wilfried Hösl
Krassimira Stoyanova and Peter Seiffert
© Wilfried Hösl

The Bayerische Staatsoper’s current production of Otello is transported into the 19th century in terms of costume by designer Alison Chitty, but with a set which is more reminiscent of a 20th-century steelworks. While these aspects should jar, they in fact serve to highlight the universality of the opera’s themes. Love, jealousy and revenge affect us all as much today as they did at any other point in history.

In the title role, one of the most demanding tenor parts in all of opera, Peter Seiffert gave an incredible and moving performance, with flexibility and beauty of tone across the whole range of his voice. Dramatically, he was equal to all the demands of this most complex of characters, perhaps the most developed that Verdi ever wrote. Otello, the Moorish general of Cyprus, is fundamentally a loving character, but he is tormented by the jealousy which Iago fuels, and he feels his racial difference from his wife, Desdemona, and her supposed lover Cassio, more and more acutely as the opera progresses. Seiffert’s portrayal of Otello’s journey from respected statesman to murderous husband is heart-wrenching; he turns Otello into a sympathetic character. Racism becomes one of the opera’s undercurrents, rather than a principal theme as it often can be.

As Desdemona, the Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova was the equal of Seiffert, giving her character a depth she often lacks, and singing beautifully from the first note to the last. Rather than the image of pure innocence, this Desdemona is a real woman, equally blameless in her death, but joyous in the earlier scenes, rather than artificially sober. Her journey into despair over her husband’s jealousy and her final prayer for redemption, in the famous Ave Maria of the closing scene, were portrayed with realism and understanding, and she is so human that one can’t help but relate to her.

Iago (Claudio Sgura), Cassio (Pavol Breslik) and Emilia (Alessandra Volpe) were as strong as the two lead roles, both musically and dramatically, and conductor Asher Fisch led the performance with an excellent sense of drama and pacing. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester played beautifully as ever, with the woodwind ensemble in the opening of Act IV being particularly evocative, accompanying Desdemona’s entrance to her bedroom and final resting place. The difference a good orchestra makes to an opera performance cannot be overstated, and opera orchestras don’t come much better than this.

This production of Otello is among the best I have ever seen of any opera. It manages to add something to Verdi’s original through its unusual set and costume design, while never detracting from what is already there. Francesca Zambello’s direction of the excellent cast gives it a dramatic depth which most opera performances lack, while the musical standards of the Bayerische Staatsoper remain, as ever, amongst the highest you can experience anywhere in the world.