Otello, Verdi’s penultimate opera, is a tightly-wound setting of Shakespeare’s familiar tragedy. From the opening storm to the title character dying upon a kiss, it is more fragmentary and emotionally cool than his earlier work, an opera that tends to be more admired than loved. The demanding leading roles, choruses, and orchestral writing pose a formidable challenge for any opera house, and it is performed relatively infrequently. But the Opéra National de Paris’s current revival is a welcome opportunity to savor its musical riches, thanks to some first-class singing.

Lucio Gallo and Aleksandrs Antonenko © Ian Patrick / Opéra national de Paris
Lucio Gallo and Aleksandrs Antonenko
© Ian Patrick / Opéra national de Paris

Renée Fleming has sung the role of Desdemona throughout her career. While her recent performances have often been marred by fussy mannerisms, here she sang with the simple, natural expressiveness and clarity that recalled why she became so famous in the first place. Her ethereal Willow Song received a well-deserved ovation, sung with velvety tone and perfect control. Her acting, however, sometimes turned affected, never fainting in one movement when she could in six or seven.

She was partnered by relative newcomer Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role. The Latvian tenor has been making a name for himself as Otello since first singing the role under Riccardo Muti at the Salzburg Festival in 2008, and is fully up to its daunting challenges. After a bit of warming up (after a less-than-blasted entrance “Esultate”), he revealed a voice that is powerful and rather muscular, even and clearly projected all the way up to secure and exciting high notes. In the Act 1 love duet, he made a game attempt at sensitive piano singing, but sounded more at home in the more dramatic music. He is a convincing actor who is able to pull off some fairly ridiculous stage action without looking silly, an absolute requirement for playing the fainting and convulsing Otello, particularly in this production. As of yet he lacks a degree of charisma that would elevate his performance from the very good to the unforgettable, but his is a name to watch.

Antonenko and Fleming received limited support from Andrei Serban’s production, which tells the story well enough but is rather dull. The setting is the nineteenth century, perhaps around the time of the opera’s composition in 1887. Eschewing politics and romance, Serban concentrates on the personal tragedy of the warrior Otello. Unable to function in civilian life now that the fighting is over, Otello shows anger management problems and social awkwardness at every turn, giving Jago an opening.

Visually it gets off to a good start, with giant black-and-white projections of crashing waves in front of the massive, black-robed chorus. Unfortunately things head downhill after that, with a collection of white walls, red sofas, and scrims that are more serviceable than striking. The choral scenes are staged as static tableaux, the more intimate scenes with greater detail. But the concentration on Otello’s rage alone leads to a somewhat one-dimensional interpretation, with little importance placed on Jago or Desdemona. It feels like a simplification of the work’s complexities and the score’s emotional range. More nuance and a little more poetry would have been welcome to bring the stage action up to the level of the musical performance.

The chorus sang with enthusiasm and secure ensemble, and in the pit the orchestra was precise and balanced. But this score demands more commanding leadership than that provided by conductor Marco Armiliato. The orchestral complexity of Otello has proven a magnet to showboat conductors. Armiliato is not so flashy. Always sensitive to the needs of the singers, he was flexible and attentive in tempos, but woefully short on fire and orchestral detail, and phrasing in the orchestral interludes and instrumental solos turned bland. Among the rest of the cast, Lucio Gallo was an unusually dapper Jago, sung with loud but dull tone. Given little definition by the production, he did his best as a mustache-twirling villain. American tenor Michael Fabiano made his Paris Opéra debut as Cassio, sounding clear and strong in the drinking song and stumbling around agreeably.

A more engaging production and more compelling conducting could have elevated this performance, but to hear the singers the level of Fleming and Antonenko in the leading roles is a rare treat.