The devil, they say, has all the best lines. In yesterday's performance of Verdi's Otello at the Met, the villain was simply sensational. Falk Struckmann's delivery of Jago's Credo in un Dio crudel (“I believe in a cruel God”) was a masterpiece of nihilism, combining power and richness of voice with a tone of pure, matter of fact evil. Throughout the opera, Struckmann avoided overacting: he simply let Boito's and Shakespeare's words do the talking, giving them weight and character through his singing voice.

Johan Botha and Falk Struckmann in Otello © Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Johan Botha and Falk Struckmann in Otello
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

I was watching Otello from the comfort of a London cinema seat, via the Met's “Live in HD” programme, which beams a dozen performances per season live to cinema-goers around the world. They currently get around 250,000 viewers, which makes the programme the most impressive piece of operatic outreach that I know of. More about the cinema experience in a moment, after talking about the performance.

Elijah Moshinsky's production is one of the most long-standing in opera, rivalled by John Copley's Bohème and a few others. It's been at the Met since the early nineties, and an essentially identical one has been at Covent Garden since 1987, where it was still in use last season (see our review). It's a sumptuous affair, clearly placed in the 17th century, with opulent costumes by Peter J Hall; Michael Yeargan's sets constitute one of the earlier uses of large amounts of three-dimensional scenery in place of painted backdrops, abundantly laced with giant columns and magnificent architectural features. The attention to detail in both setting and costumes is meticulous; period-realistic settings don't come much better.

Otello demands three excellent singers, and in this production, it got them. Struckmann I've already mentioned. Johan Botha has a huge voice and has clearly immersed himself into the score, giving us attractive timbre and a wide variety of expression as he follows Otello's swing from heroism to disaster. His acting wasn't as exciting, as he tended to deploy a single stern facial expression: head held high, chin firmly jutted out, eyes wide and staring. The part of Desdemona is almost unactable for the first three acts - inasmuch as the libretto gives her any character at all, it's as a woman who is clueless to the point of wilfulness about what is going on around her - but the role becomes more substantial in act IV, and Renée Fleming responded well. In the smaller role of Cassio, young American tenor Michael Fabiano looks like a talent to watch, with matinée idol looks and a light, attractive lyric voice.

Written towards the end of Verdi's life, Otello is about as far as he got in the blurring of the boundaries between recitative and aria. Still, each of the characters gets one big solo set piece. Desdemona's is the Willow Song and its succeeding Ave Maria, which Fleming sung to technical perfection, and Botha did an equally good job of the shorter Niun mi tema (“Let no-one fear me”), perhaps the ultimate in operatic suicide notes.

London's Belsize Park Everyman is a pleasant and comfortable cinema, and the video quality from the Met's feed is extremely good. The choice of shots wasn't entirely to my taste, with the director spending a great deal of time on close-ups of faces. The close-ups are impressive, for sure, showing details of Hall's glorious costumes and of everyone's facial expressions in a way that one can only achieve in an opera house with the aid of serious binoculars. But one can have too much of a good thing, and there are pitfalls: for example, it's not a good idea to give us a close up of Desdemona at a point where she has supposedly been dead for several minutes but is still obviously breathing and blinking.

But there was a far more serious problem with the cinema experience, namely the sound, which was fearfully compressed: in other words, the soft passages were amplified to make everything at a consistently high volume. The resulting dynamic range was so reduced that I can't even comment on Semyon Bychkov's conducting, because I had so little sense of detail and dynamics. That kind of compression is fine if you're listening on a car radio, but it destroys any attempt at the illusion of being in an opera house.

I can't tell for sure whether the problem lay in the feed from the Met or in the set-up at the cinema. I'm inclined to suspect the latter, partly because I've listened to the Met's on-demand editions on good equipment and they've been fine, and partly because I know from a previous career that cinema sound systems are tuned to make movies sound good rather than for fidelity: a variety of effects are often added to make dialogue and special effects sound more vibrant, which would not do opera any favours.

Whichever is the case, it seriously dented the experience. This broadcast was showing the Met doing what it does best: assembling an excellent cast giving a high quality performance in a traditional production of a mainstream opera. Since I can't easily get to New York, this is a fine way of sharing in the experience. Next time, however, I'm hoping for a cinema in which the sound quality does the performance more justice.

***11