With all the recent excited anticipation of the role debut of a certain German tenor in London, it was still a revelation to hear once again José Cura in this most demanding of Verdi roles, which he has been singing for twenty years. He is a singer who has never been content to rely on a safe number of familiar parts, and this year alone he has sung Tannhäuser in French, and produced, designed and taken the lead in Peter Grimes. The psychological and vocal demand of the latter came to mind when he sang “Già la pleiade ardente in mar discende”. In Shakespeare's original, Othello says “for that I am declined into the vale of years,” and Cura, with his leonine mane of grey hair and grizzled beard, looked every inch the mature military leader, commanding of stature and profile.

José Cura (Otello) © Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
José Cura (Otello)
© Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

At the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, Cura's powerful spinto tenor immediately impressed with his opening “Esultate!” and left no doubt as to his authority in his masterful delivery of “Abbasso le spade!” in his quelling of the drunken Act 1 riot. With his years of experience, less becomes more. The waywardness of pitch and rhythm of earlier days are gone, and his sable dark resonant lower voice brought both exotic otherness and passion to the love duet. As Iago's poison took hold, Cura's imperious dignity and self-possession crumbled with lightning flashes of rage in his eyes. Encompassing dynamic vocal extremes, his subtle inwardness from “Ora e per sempre addio” and a grave sotto voce, almost muffled “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” through to a nobly pathetic “Niun mi tema” this was the tragic fall of a flawed hero on a Shakespearean scale.

Pierre-Yves Pruvot (Iago) © Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Pierre-Yves Pruvot (Iago)
© Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

As his nemesis Iago, French baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot reminded one that his compatriot, Victor Maurel, created both Iago and Falstaff. Outwardly bluff and jovial as “Onesto Jago” he manipulated the plot with his warmly ripe baritone by watchfulness and insinuation instead of villainous posturing. He was especially insidious and lubricious recounting Cassio's 'dream', and his vocal reserves enable a forceful Credo, coloured by blank negativity and dismissed by laughter, rather than raucousness.

José Cura (Otello) and Cinzia Forte (Desdemona) © Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
José Cura (Otello) and Cinzia Forte (Desdemona)
© Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

As Desdemona, Cinzia Forte was cast traditionally as a chaste, almost angelic heroine. With her slightly tremulous lyric soprano she could not ride the Act 3 ensemble and was at her best in the more tender and vulnerable moments such as “Guarda le prime lagrime”, and her plangently sung Willow Song and finely phrased Ave Maria. Giulio Pelligra was a more forthright Cassio than some, making his succession to Otello as Governor of Cyprus more plausible. Other roles were well taken by the house ensemble, with an assertive Emilia from Alexise Yerna.

The production was originally mounted in 2011 by the Artistic and General Director, Stefano Mazzonis de Pralafera, in sets by Carla Sala and handsome Renaissance costumes by Fernand Ruiz. It is conservatively traditional, other than a fondness for overcrowding the stage with props and extras. The set was a simple arrangement of columns and drapery with various scenic elements slid on and off by visible stagehands, allowing for fluid open set changes between acts. The main directorial interventions were two paid minions of Iago who distractingly wheeled Desdemona and Cassio around on small platforms as he manipulated them. Cassio, however, had his comeback, stabbing Iago in the back during Otello's final “un bacio ancora”, ending with an additional corpse on the marital bed.

Production image © Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Production image
© Lorraine Wauters | Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

The evening served as the last performance of Paolo Arrivabeni as Music Director after ten years. The Director General made a short speech in appreciation after the interval. Arrivabeni secured tight ensemble in an often brisk performance, only lacking real rhythmic incisiveness and a sense of melancholy grandeur. His tenure has clearly led to fine orchestral playing and enthusiastic choral participation.

Despite some clumsiness in the staging, the compelling strengths of Cura and the ensemble made for a moving evening, more so than the recent stellar event in London.