“I believe man the victim of an unjust fate, from the germ of the cradle to the worm of the grave”. Iago is one of Shakespeare's more sinister characters, and so central did he remain in librettist Arrigo Boito's reworking of Othello that Verdi considered making him the opera's title character. The decision of director Paco Azorin to make Iago so indisputably at the heart of this new production is therefore no great innovation. Instead, it is the location of the performance that provides the real interest: Italy's dreamy Marche region is the last place you'd expect to enjoy such a dark tale.

Roberto Frontali (Iago) © Alfredo Tabocchini | Macerata Opera Festival
Roberto Frontali (Iago)
© Alfredo Tabocchini | Macerata Opera Festival

Nestled in the gentle hills of the Adriatic coast, Macerata's pristine Renaissance centre comes to life with the arrival of the annual opera festival, its pinkish, yellowish streets filling with opera lovers and its clusters of bars slowly emptied of local wines. 'The Mediterranean' makes a convenient thematic wrap for this year's package of three opera productions, talks and recitals, though allusions to those that have recently lost their lives traversing the Strait of Sicily (programmes have been printed in 2,899 copies to indicate the number thought to have drowned since the start of the year) merely highlights that this urbane holiday retreat is a world apart from the challenges found on the southern coast. In keeping with the surroundings, this Otello provided a stylish musical display, though dramatically it lacked requisite grit.

The Sferisterio forms the festival's main venue, a neoclassical open-air arena once used for matches of pallone al bracciale (a glamourised version of handball) and now featuring a stage as wide as football pitch affront a towering brick wall. Azorin breaks up the space with large moveable panels suggestive of the libretto's Cypriot castle onto which he projects various images. A dark atmosphere prevails, and the opening storm batters us in all directions, the stage lighting up in strobes as conductor Riccardo Frizza summons turbulent headwinds. 

Iago's commanding stature is underlined throughout. His name, rather than Otello's, is projected above as we wait for the action to commence. A constant presence throughout, he lurks in the recesses with shadowy yet rather camp assassin-like figures in tow, while scribbled notes, equations and a floor-plan for the stage flash into view to indicate that Iago is in full control of the events that take place before us. Such touches frequently work well, though where they merely echo that what is implicit in music and text, the effect is one of drama-weakening tautology.

Jessica Nuccio (Desdemona) © Alfredo Tabocchini | Macerata Opera Festival
Jessica Nuccio (Desdemona)
© Alfredo Tabocchini | Macerata Opera Festival

Greater depth and detail in the stagework would have been welcomed, yet the cast produces some sturdy performances nevertheless. Roberto Frontali is a stern, chillingly immobile Iago, armed with a brassy voice and a cleanness of diction that sees him carve Boito's text with surgical precision. “Credo in un Dio crudel” was a spluttering, contorted meditation. Yet more blood-curdling were the moments when he consoled his victims, his faux-compassion masking all but a hint of a snarl.

Jessica Nuccio's Desdemona, dressed in pure white throughout, was irresistibly sweet without bordering on saccharine. Nuccio has recently had her debut at La Scala and clearly has a bright future ahead of her. Her high-set voice focusses to a glowing thread with a seamless, breezy legato, and "Mia madre" was a moment of heart-stopping tenderness, the image of a willow sprouting and decaying as the voice radiated crushed piety in the face of imminent death. There was real chemistry between Desdemona and Otello, the two binding one another in melismatic trestles in their big Act I duet. As Otello, Stuart Neill is capable of producing floated, cooing tones in the upper register, and his sturdy voice clicks into place mightily elswhere. Yet there remained something lacking in his performance. Otello should feel like a psychoanalyst's dream - a man undone by manifold insecurities. Here, Neill hovered between opposing poles of enraged and enraptured and rarely explored the space in between. 

Jessica Nuccio (Desdemona), Stuart Neill (Otello) and Manuel Pierattelli (Roderigo) © Alfredo Tabocchini | Macerata Opera Festival
Jessica Nuccio (Desdemona), Stuart Neill (Otello) and Manuel Pierattelli (Roderigo)
© Alfredo Tabocchini | Macerata Opera Festival

Cassio and Roderigo were strongly played by Davide Giusti and Manuel Pierattelli respectively. The Macerata chorus is not the most cultivated, but remains a game unit capable of enlivening the heavy summer air with crackling diction. Arguably the best performance came from Frizza's orchestra. The muscular outbursts blistered, and the romantic lyricism soared. This was a fluid reading of some restless through-composed music. The staging might have been drab, but musically this Otello glittered.