After all the hype, he sang. Speculation about whether Jonas Kaufmann would even turn up for rehearsals to sing his first Otello have kept both press and social media frenzied for months. Even the dismissal of the Iago, Ludovic Tézier, from the production only momentarily deflected attention. The Royal Opera's Antonio Pappano tirelessly answered questions, reassuring everyone that yes, Kaufmann was here. The electrifying buzz crackling about the sweltering theatre on opening night could partly be explained as self-congratulatory relief – given the startling top price ticket tag of £270 – that Kaufmann Hadn't Cancelled.

Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Jonas Kaufmann (Otello)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

It needed a storm to clear the air, but the tempest unleashed by Pappano and his magnificent orchestra and chorus only heightened expectations. Director Keith Warner kept us guessing. A ship docked at the back of the set... but no Otello. A gangplank shot out from the side wall... for Desdemona. Eventually, Kaufmann rose, like Christ on the third day, through a trapdoor to greet his disciples. A notorious slow starter, Kaufmann hit the ground running here with a fine “Esultate!”, a bronze-toned lion of Venice rather than one with a clarion, trumpet cry.

Kaufmann’s is not the largest tenor sound in the world – he was comprehensively outgunned by Marco Vratogna’s muscly Iago – but his vocal acting displayed intelligent absorption of the role. Taken at a flowing pace, “Ora e per sempre” was the highlight, passionate and heroic. He is not the most instinctive stage animal and, at this early stage, there was little chemistry with Maria Agresta’s angelic Desdemona, although the Act 1 love duet was tenderly sung. Dramatically, it will take time for him to get under Otello's skin. Kaufmann slipped into ultra-quiet mode too often, which largely worked for the parlando interior monologue of “Dio mi potevi scagliar”, but elsewhere his crooned pianissimos sounded mannered. In this role, less is not necessarily Moor.

Act 3 © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Act 3
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The heroes of the evening were Pappano, a firebrand in the pit drawing visceral orchestral playing, and Boris Kudlička’s shapeshifting set, whose walls slide in and out – often manipulated by Iago, much as he manipulates the plot – to create different spaces. As Cassio becomes drunk, the floor moves, the line of trestle tables becoming skewed and treacherous to navigate. Latticed tracery on sliding panels allows us to see eavesdropping and skulduggery, although it was an odd decision to have Otello (Kaufmann harnessed but clinging on gingerly) spy on Cassio and Iago’s banter from the high gangplank instead of behind one of these screens. Act 3 was topped by the fleeting appearance of a white marble St Mark’s winged lion, shattered to pieces by the end of the scene. The only miscalculation in Bruno Poet’s atmospheric lighting was the garishly lit white bedroom for Act 4 – negating the need for any candles for Otello to “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Maria Agresta (Otello) and Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Maria Agresta (Otello) and Jonas Kaufmann (Otello)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Warner’s direction is less certain. His choral blocking is effective – the opening storm scene is almost identical to Elijah Moshinsky’s prodution this one replaced – but relationships and interactions between characters are stilted, as yet, and do not always convince.

Maria Agresta spun some lovely top lines as Desdemona and sang a moving Willow Song, but her lower register sounded pale and disconected. Marco Vratogna barked and snarled effectively as Iago – this is one Verdi baritone role that doesn’t require beautiful legato lines – and he oozed evil from the very start, when Iago holds aloft a Venetian mask and smashes it to the floor with the opera’s thunderous opening chord. Haloed in cathedral-like lighting, Iago’s Credo was a chilling confession to hell, partly delivered to the glowing red lighting strips beneath his slithering body. The Venetian mask returns to haunt Otello in a mirror in Act 2 before Iago uses it to smother his victim at the end of Act 3.

Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) and Marco Vratogna (Iago) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) and Marco Vratogna (Iago)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Smaller roles were effectively cast, Frédéric Antoun’s slender tenor making an attractive Cassio, Kai Rüütel a sympathetic Emilia. The Royal Opera Chorus was on shattering form, the earthquake of sound in the tempest causing the house to shudder.

Once one or two of the leads settle more completely into their roles, this summer’s “hot ticket” could match the evening’s sweltering temperature.