Giuseppe Verdi’s late opera Otello opened the season at Teatro Regio in Turin. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda faced the challenge of this disquieting masterpiece, last time performed in Turin by the Berliner Philarmoniker (conducted by Claudio Abbado) in 1997.

Gregory Kunde (Otello) and Erika Grimaldi (Desdemona) © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
Gregory Kunde (Otello) and Erika Grimaldi (Desdemona)
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino

Sixteen years after the composition of Aida, Verdi returned to the opera house with his Otello (1887). From the very first notes, everyone could feel its modernity: a tempest is raging at the harbour of Cyprus, where Otello is struggling to dock. The thunder, wind and the sea’s violent lapping are all depicted by an orchestral deflagration: an ascending fortissimo leading directly to a F major. The sound raises and lowers, according to the movement of the waves smashing on the shore. Verdi’s usual audience must have been really shocked upon experiencing this powerful and overwhelming introduction which already has all the shades of an expressionistic picture.  

British director Walter Sutcliffe sets Otello right in the middle of a never-ending battle. The minimalist scenes are overlooked by blooded war barricades, which surround the characters as a permanent frame of violence and brutality. Like a window, the barricades were opened and closed a few times throughout the performance, highlighting Otello’s profound thoughts and hidden motives. The result is a sense of imprisonment and subjugation to those sinister suspects which will lead to a desperate conclusion (“Ecco la fin del mio cammin”: this is the end of my path).

A part from this, Sutcliffe’s adaptation showed almost no originality. The violence was over exaggerated: blood stains covered everything, two Muslims were stabbed to death right after the tempest, even Iago was killed at the end of act IV. Otello’s modernity, conversely, lays in the crisis of the protagonist: the jealousy and the killing of Desdemona are just parts of this wider dynamic of depersonalisation. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Otello was born in slavery and suffered in his life, as he himself and Desdemona remember in their superb and moving duet at the end of act I: “E tu m’amavi per le mie sventure“/ “ed io t’amavo per la tua pietà” (And you loved me for my misfortunes/ and I loved you for your pity). Otello is not a young man any more, but now a general with demanding responsibilities. His weakness is fomented by Iago, who instils in him the seeds of jealousy and revenge. Otello cannot recognize himself anymore: his values are overturned and his certainty vacillates. He is already condemned to misery.

Erika Grimaldi (Desdemona) © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
Erika Grimaldi (Desdemona)
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino

Elena Cicorella’s costumes are questionable: the soldiers seemed as if they were warriors from the Star Wars saga with galaxy belts and an obscure mimicry. Desdemona was a mix of La fanciulla del West and a colourful and plastic clown. Emilia looked like a medieval dame in an elegant velvet dress, Cassio a vampire from Herzog’s Nosferatu. The costumes displayed a lack of coherence and uniformity.

Musically speaking, this Otello is precious. Noseda has just conducted with passion and rigor also one of the other Verdi’s “late” works, the Messa da Requiem. He engaged with lively rhythms and wound the large orchestra up to the hell of Otello’s perdition and rage. The woodwinds’ murmuring introduction to Act IV, the explosion of the orchestra according to the parallel Otello’s “Demonio, taci!”: everything was masterly realised, also thanks to the fine performance of the remarkable chorus, always in full synch with Noseda.

Ambrogio Maestri (Iago) © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino
Ambrogio Maestri (Iago)
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio Torino

Salvatore Cordella (Cassio) and Luca Casalin (Roderigo) demonstrated good voices and techniques and were convincing on stage (despite their costumes). Ambrogio Maestri was a treacherous and manipulating Iago. He confirmed himself as baritone of enormous interest: he was self-confident on stage and showed a mighty voice that he was able to pitch splendidly. Maestri wriggled out of the tough Verdian musical fabric with disarming nonchalance.

Gregory Kunde has sung on the professional stage for more than 35 years and is still singing brilliantly at 60. His voice is powerful and burnished, combined with a modulating phrasing and a flawless diction. He was also a great actor: he himself and Desdemona (Erika Grimaldi) provided intense moments. Just consider the duet “Già nella notte densa” (Act I), where the two eventually rejoined themselves after hard times and intoned a hymn to their immense love. Grimaldi embodied a fragile and innocent Desdemona, endowed with a crystalline timbre and an outstanding voice: her performance  is moving during her humiliation in front of the ambassador Lodovico. She sang with heartbreaking melancholy in a delicate 'Willow Song' and an almost whispered Ave Maria. The conclusion was powerful and agonizing: Kunde, knelt down next to the lifeless body of Desdemona, sadly implored one more kiss, just another kiss.

****1