It’s good to have expectations confounded. For much of his career, American tenor Gregory Kunde specialised in bel canto repertoire, his light, flexible voice ideal for Rossini with easy top notes that also meant he could tackle Berlioz’ stratospheric tenor roles like Énée and Benvenuto Cellini with distinction. In recent years though, Kunde has taken an unexpected lurch into heavier repertoire. I was unconvinced by his Manrico and approached his Otello in this first revival of Keith Warner’s production at The Royal Opera with trepidation, having missed him when he played second fiddle to Jonas Kaufmann in 2017.

Carlos Álvarez (Iago) and Gregory Kunde (Otello)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Kunde’s is an unusual voice, with a husky core that means his softer singing can lean towards a croon. But at 65 his louder notes ring out with remarkable strength – not with the clarion roar of a tenor like Mario del Monaco nor the bronze of Kaufmann, but cleanly and effectively so that his “Esultate!” forced one to sit up and take notice. He may be a grizzled lion of Venice, but Otello is, after all, an experienced general who has married a much younger wife. Kunde maintained power and focus through the evening so that his “Niun mi tema” was gripping in its dramatic intensity; remarkable singing which took me by complete surprise. He must be one of the few tenors to take on both Rossini and Verdi’s Moor.

Gregory Kunde (Otello) and Ermonela Jaho (Desdemona)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The other major players were also stronger in this revival. Desdemona fits Ermonela Jaho like a satin glove, wafting soft notes into the Cypriot night in the love duet, then defiant, yet noble, when Otello confronts her, accusing her of being a courtesan in Act 3. But it was in the final act that Jaho shone most brightly in a rapt Willow Song and tender Ave Maria. Carlos Álvarez has all the sturdy baritone weight for Verdi roles, with plenty of bite to express Iago’s disdain for Otello. Although Warner’s production makes Iago’s plotting plain from the start – smashing a white plaster mask on the opening chords of the storm – Álvarez plays him as a likeable bloke who charms Otello into his confidence with bluff good humour. Why wouldn’t you trust him? But his Credo tore the mask away, revealing inky tone and a curled lip. Freddie De Tommaso impressed as Cassio, no light tenor here, but a tone more robust – a general in the making, no doubt – and Catherine Carby was a fierce, waspish Emilia.

Act 3 Otello
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The Royal Opera Chorus was in fine fettle, rising to the challenges of the opening storm thrillingly, driven on by Sir Antonio Pappano who conducted a visceral account of Verdi’s great score. There was plenty of fire in the Otello–Iago duet and the cor anglais in the Willow Song sobbed plangently. (There was an odd cut in the Act 2 chorus praising Desdemona though, which I don’t recall from last time.)

Warner’s production does the job efficiently without ever shaking off memories of Elijah Moshinsky’s classy predecessor. Boris Kudlička’s shapeshifting set shunts and stalls about to aid the impression that the action is always being spied upon. The winged lion that wheels past for about 30 seconds in Act 3 is impressive, the garish lighting for Desdemona’s bedchamber less so. Iago’s use of a black Venetian mask to smother Otello at the end of Act 3 is one of the staging’s more powerful moments, but it’s the principals who really made this performance come alive.