Verdi's two late masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff, truly cannot be absent from an opera festival dedicated to Shakespeare. But while the Hungarian State Opera's Falstaff with Maestri at its centre delighted, the company's performance of Otello failed to do justice to the work.

Much of the failure can be attributed to Gergely Madaras at the helm. Dynamically bland, he was only able to summon up a volume ranging from loud to even louder, regularly drowning out both soloists and chorus entirely. Madaras was unable to bring across any sensitivity or interest for the more lyrical parts: in A terra, sì, nel livido fango, the ensemble almost fell apart as he resorted to beating time. Given the deafening volume, the round, rich tone of the orchestra could hardly ever be enjoyed.

Mihály Kálmándy as Iago gave the most well-rounded performance of the night. Though his singing was initially uncertain and occasionally defeated by the thundering orchestra, his inky, sonorous baritone nevertheless impressed greatly, especially in a truly demonic Credo. In a production where quality acting was in short supply, his characterization was also the most vivid in the cast.

Rafael Rojas was a highly puzzling Otello. Rojas has a nice Italianate timbre and a secure top, but his voice felt like it was a size and a half too small for the part; being frequently drowned out by the orchestra, he was simply inaudiable for most of the opera. With a more sensitive conductor, his lack of vocal heft might have been less obvious, but under Madaras, he had no chance. The opposite was true for his Desdemona, Andrea Rost, the only singer of the performance who had no problem projecting over the orchestra. Sadly, her strength seemed to lie entirely in volume: her voice was weighed down by an unpleasant metallic edge and an unsteady vibrato, lacking the warmth, expressivity, and indeed, sheer vocal beauty necessary for the role. The only really arresting moment of her performance was an exquisite pianissimo at the end of Ave Maria.

The singers of the minor roles were mostly forgettable, save for Ferenc Cserhalmi’s velvety-voiced Lodovico – Judit Németh’s Emilia was quite shrill and Gergely Boncsér’s Cassio sounded forced, without the smooth, sweet tone that could’ve made the role appealing. When not having to battle against the orchestra, the chorus gave a strong performance, singing with a wonderful homogeneous sound.

Stefano Poda's production (designed and directed entirely by Poda himself) is the most visually compelling production I’ve seen at the Hungarian State Opera so far. The stage is dominated by a large rhombus, penetrated by a stake (the symbolism is rather blatant and never really relevant), hands reach out from the walls, and a large white frame covers the upper half of the stage. The scene is generally dark and underlit, with warm, golden lightning when Desdemona is onstage and a threatening red for the Credo and the end of Act III. Color-coding is a cornerstone of the production: the stage is black, most of the characters wear black clothing and the lower half of the rhombus and stake are painted black too, hinting at sullied love between Otello and Desdemona. In stark contrast with her surroundings, Desdemona wears white in her first appearance in Act I, and the white frame only descends when she is onstage, suggesting her connection to something pure and ethereal in a world otherwise stark and grim.

Otello, on the other hand, simply melts into his environment. Not marked as different (let alone the leader) in any way, he wears an even plainer black leather costume than the chorus, turning into an everyman without any apparent issues that makes it hard to see why he would so readily fall into Iago’s trap. Poda hints at a dark, depraved, uniformized society that can easily be exploited and manipulated by Iago (he does quite literally weave a web around Cassio in the Brindisi), but that imagery isn’t carried through, and it only raises further questions: why is Desdemona the only visible "outsider" of this society?    And more crucially: with no apparent othering, what is the point of Otello's entire storyline?

The stage direction also leaves a lot to be desired. Singers seemed to be operating mostly based on general instructions, with characterizations remaining vague, and the crowd scenes were all too static. The finale fared the worst, Desdemona’s murder hardly having any tension, Iago simply walking off and Otello and Desdemona inexplicably rising from the dead in the last seconds to descend with the sinking stage, diminishing all effect it might have had before.

I’m very glad that Poda did away with the blackface and faux-medieval setting for his production, but his staging, frustratingly, raises more questions than it answers. Combined with such an underwhelming musical performance, this evening was not one to remember.