Opening a season with Otello is definitely a bold move. There is something darkly elusive in Verdi’s late masterpiece that can leave an uncomfortable sense of disappointment after the performance. Perhaps we forget that Otello is almost an operatic genre of its own: a fin de siècle tragedy disguised as Italian drama, where Verdi adventures into uncharted musical territory. Striking the right chord is therefore a daunting challenge and it requires an extremely committed artistic team, plus singing and acting performances at their finest. Despite good intentions, this was hardly the case in David Alden's production at Teatro Real.

George Petean (Iago) and Gregory Kunde (Otello) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
George Petean (Iago) and Gregory Kunde (Otello)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

After a celebrated Roberto Devereux last season, the stakes were high for Gregory Kunde, whose reborn career provokes nothing but admiration and sympathy. However, Otello's devilish difficulty took its toll: Kunde’s voice appeared surprisingly diminished and weary, as if restrained to survive the night – and he did survive, which is more than most tenors tackling the role can say. The easy top notes, clean and free but without squillo, combined with fiery and truly heroic phrasing, which were still able to hook the audience. But once the initial amazement faded, the flaws outweighed his much-praised virtues. From a dramatic point of view, it is hard to define his approach to the role: he does show love for Desdemona, but his effortful singing spoils the poetry of “Già nella notte densa”; he goes for an extrovert and violent Otello but his voice is not authoritative enough to make understandable his savage metamorphosis in Act II. On the other hand, the psychological tour de force in Act III was sincere and nuanced, crowned in Act IV with a truly defeated “Niun mi tema”. In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that Kunde’s Otello, despite having many of the ingredients to put forward a serious attempt to the role, does not answer the main questions that Verdi hid in the darkest corners of the score.

Ermonela Jaho (Desdemona), Gregory Kunde (Otello) and chorus © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Ermonela Jaho (Desdemona), Gregory Kunde (Otello) and chorus
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

David Alden’s production, first seen at ENO, did little to shed light into these matters, contributing to the overall disappointment. The staging revolves around an interesting but timidly developed idea: the decaying West resists at the maritime edge of its civilisation, in a ravaging war against the Turks. In this hostile setting, men’s obsession with Desdemona’s purity triggers the drama. The scene in Act II where Desdemona is offered flowers and presents by children is directed by Alden as the eerie adoration of a reluctant muse, whose virtue is also her main sin. But the idea is left undeveloped and the production remains merely illustrative (in spite of the dim lighting). The production might have lacked rehearsal because the chorus’ movements across the stage looked clumsy and disordered, and there was an overall lack of tension.

Relying on the ever improving string section of the orchestra of the Teatro Real, Renato Palumbo conveyed a patchy Otello, full of brilliant and incredibly detailed moments, but was unable to glue them together into a coherent musical thread. The most static parts, such as the love duet in Act I, were conducted imaginatively but rhythm and tension declined in the most violent parts, resulting in disconcerting ups and downs. The chorus again showed its usual rich palette, but sounded a bit messy in the opening storm scene.

Ermonela Jaho (Desdemona) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Ermonela Jaho (Desdemona)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

If it was not for the fatal attraction to the myth of Otello, Desdemona would be the leading role in this opera. Unlike other Verdian heroines, she is an utterly tragic character, her blindness leading her to the abyss. However, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho’s fervent melodramatic code, more a necessity than an artistic choice, turns the innocent heroine into a pitiful victim. It sometimes does the trick, especially in Acts I and IV, but a whole dimension of the character is left behind. Jaho has a beautiful fleshy voice in the central register, although the low and high notes are frequently hollow and open. She showed good breath control and polished technique in her pianissimi, which contributed to a very good Willow Song. George Petean was a correct Iago, with a healthy baritone and good diction and phrasing. He played, however, a reluctant villain, lacking the corrosive touch of evil required by the score. Alexey Dolgov’s powerful Cassio stood out among an overall solid team of supporting roles.

***11