To round out the 2018–19 season, the Wiener Staatsoper has premiered a new Otello which is certainly an improvement on the tasteless Christine Mielitz production which preceded it. Director Adrian Noble and designer Dick Bird have moved the action from the 15th century to the early part of the 20th and themes of colonialism carry their concept. The winged lion of St Mark is featured on the opening curtain, and later in gilded form, towering over the action and assuring us that we are in Venice, but the rest of the costuming is plundered from a variety of places. Men in black top hats, women in Belle Époque garb, military personnel, colonialists in Panama hats and children in Peter Thomson sailor dresses are all featured. These are juxtaposed with “locals” who are indeterminately Muslim, women in long headdresses and colorful harem pants and veiled layers whose seductive movements still look patently European. Otello himself dons military-inspired coats and long, cream tunics. Visually, the costumes create rich textures against towering, yet generally understated, stage designs. Crashing waves outside, created by heavy smoke and billowing fabric, make beautiful tableaux, likewise strings of sloping electrical lights, hung over a tavern scene.

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

There are also some questions that one could pose to the leading team. How does Otello appear pressed and spotless after nearly drowning in a shipwreck in the opening scene? Could Desdemona not have been better situated after being strangled so her continued breathing in a white gown is less obvious? Most fundamentally, how could Desdemona (Olga Bezsmertna) ever have fallen in love with this Otello (Aleksandrs Antonenko)? In this production, Otello’s murderous rage does not build slowly, but seems from the outset a facet of his character and lot as the eternal outsider. Antonenko realizes the character as consistently angry. He has all of the high, fortissimo sounds that Verdi demands and plenty of metal to his tone, but little nuance. His desire for dramatic effect drives him to push which, while impressive, also makes one question how long he will be able to sing such vocally demanding roles. His Otello seems a caricature of mistrust and jealous rage, facilely misdirected by Iago. His duet with Desdemona at the end of the first act, though beautiful, was not enough to convince that there was ever love between these two.

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), Olga Bezsmertna (Desdemona) and Margarita Gritskova (Emilia)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Bezsmertna's Desdemona pales in the face of this fury. During the Willow Song and Ave Maria in Act 4, she turned this to magical effect, thinning out and floating her shimmering soprano into gossamer threads. In her lower register, she sometimes lacked the heft to push through Myung-Whun Chung’s heavy-handed dynamic approach with the Staatsoper Orchester. Despite some absolutely brilliant playing, so often it was just too loud, with concerns of sound quality quashed by dramatic impulse.

Vladislav Sulimsky (Iago)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

Vladislav Sulimsky’s Iago fared quite well, and if he may not linger in the memory in the wake of those super villains who have come before him, his velvety legato and well-rounded sound were convincing. He colored his disdain beautifully, and resisted the urge to bellow. Ensemble tenor Jinxu Xiahou sang Cassio with ring and ease, showing awareness of style which belies his youth, and the rest of the cast did not disappoint, with Jongmin Park (Lodovico) and Margarita Gritskova (Emilia) as particular standouts in their smaller roles. It would be a crime to fail to mention the Staatsopernchor and the children’s chorus drawn from the Opernschule, who realized Verdi’s massive ensemble numbers with energy and skill. Applause as well to the Bühnenorchester – it has been awhile since I have heard such lovely mandolin work.

© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

The audience at Thursday's premiere was generally effusive, the applause as thunderous inside the Haus am Ring as a shower of rain and hail which raged during the interval. Although time will tell how long this Otello (the sixth Staatsoper staging) will last, it was a solid, successful launch of an operatic behemoth and one especially laden with expectations and ghosts of productions past.