William Shakespeare’s Othello is one of the most complex and nuanced dramas of all times; Italian poet and composer Arrigo Boito had the difficult task of condensing the tragedy into a libretto and, in so doing, he was forced to downplay several crucial themes (most importantly, the central role of racism), reducing the range and depth of the dramatic development. Director Amélie Niermeyer further reduced this range at the Bayerische Staatsoper, by transposing the drama to the current day and presenting Otello as a man already defeated from the beginning, thus removing his emotionally gripping descent from perfect bliss to utter misery and destruction. Niermeyer’s Otello is psychologically fragile, a disturbed man, acting aloof and restless from the first moment; Iago’s task of pushing him over the edge is an easy one. We read in the programme notes that Otello is devastated by his war experience, but this is not evident in the production, which lacks any hint to war, or military situations. The men are in modern suits and ties (costumes by Annelies Vanlaere), they all look like a bunch of clerks, and it’s hard to understand exactly what kind of ruler Otello might be (perhaps an office manager?). Even any reference to military weapons is removed: Cassio and Rodrigo fight with a broken bottle in the second scene, and Otello kills himself with a pocket knife.

Anja Harteros (Desdemona) and Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) © Wilfried Hösl (2018)
Anja Harteros (Desdemona) and Jonas Kaufmann (Otello)
© Wilfried Hösl (2018)

On the other hand, Niermeyer’s direction of the singers was careful and detailed: every look was meaningful, every gesture was thoughtfully crafted, often subtly at tempo with the music. This gave credibility to the drama, and helped the emotional understanding of the performance. The minimalistic staging by Christian Schmidt gave the singers a bare canvas on which to paint their characters with detailed interpretations.

The musical performance was simply magnificent. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester, under the baton of Ádám Fischer, was consistently excellent, loud and booming when needed, but mostly precise and transparent, supporting the singers without overwhelming them, with a beautiful, rich sound.

The chorus did a tremendous job, especially in the first act. The beginning, with the orchestra painting a storm and the chorus, dressed in black and in the shade, commenting on the naval battle, was one of the most exciting openings of an opera I have ever witnessed. Jonas Kaufmann’s “Esultate!” was the jewel on that crowning achievement.

Claudio Sgura (Iago) © Wilfried Hösl
Claudio Sgura (Iago)
© Wilfried Hösl

Kaufmann has confirmed himself as the Otello of our times, fully taking ownership of the role. His tenor was darker and more baritonal than ever, but with splendid, trumpet-like high notes. The best part of his performance was perhaps in the softer notes; his rendition of “Dio, mi potevi scagliar”, where Otello confesses his total inability to deal with emotional distress, was original, deep and heartbreaking.

Anja Harteros once again sang Desdemona. Her voice is perfect for the role, with ravishing pianissimi and splendid high notes. Her legendary legato was superb, it sounded like she sang the whole opera in one breath. Niermeyer gave Desdemona more agency than both Shakespeare and Verdi did: she opposes her husband, hitting him when he calls her “Cortigiana”, speaking with force rather than pleading when interceding for Cassio. She was on stage for most of the opera, in a back chamber divided by the main room via an invisible wall, becoming almost the protagonist of the story. Her Willow song in the fourth act was affectionate and refined, every repetition of “Salce” new and subtly different. Her cry “Emilia addio!”, when bidding farewell to her maid, was shattering. This was followed by the sweetest, most intimate Ave Maria imaginable, her prayer soothing and devastating at the same time.

Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) and Anja Harteros (Desdemona) © Wilfried Hösl (2018)
Jonas Kaufmann (Otello) and Anja Harteros (Desdemona)
© Wilfried Hösl (2018)

The chemistry between Harteros and Kaufmann is legendary, their voices melt together, expressing the same artistic intent. This unity of artistic vision came through despite their physical distance: in Niermeyer’s vision Otello and Desdemona shared fewer embraces than one is accustomed to, especially in the love duet, which was musically outstanding. Otello dies on stage completely alone: everybody has left, Desdemona’s body is hidden and his words “un bacio ancora” (another kiss) reverberate like a desperate, futile longing.

Claudio Sgura sang Iago with an impressive, strong, well projected baritone. His Iago was more a master manipulator than an agent of pure evil: he didn’t seem to have a masterplan, other than a general idea of hurting Otello. He seemed to make it up as he went along, almost surprised at how easy it was to get people to do what he wanted. Sgura’s voice was perhaps not extremely elegant, but his interpretation was spot on, earning great acclaim from the Staatsoper’s audience. Among the minor characters, Tareq Nazmi stood out as Ludovico, the Venetian Ambassador, his generous bass warm and paternal towards the distressed Desdemona.

A thundering success.

****1