Sometimes revivals hit all the right notes. Just seven days ago, The Royal Opera’s revival of Cav & Pag – plagued by major cast changes – scorched back onto the stage, all cylinders firing. But tonight, with all the scheduled singers appearing, bar one late change (Emilia), the second revival of Keith Warner’s staging of Verdi’s Otello felt distinctly underbaked for much of the evening. 

Christopher Maltman (Iago) and Russell Thomas (Otello)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Christopher Maltman was the (ig)noble exception. As Iago, the villain of the piece who manipulates the downfall of his general, he sang – and acted – everyone else off the stage. Warner has Iago appear at the very start, dashing a plaster face mask to the ground to unleash the fierce opening storm. Maltman dominated proceedings thereon, the audience witness to his machinations, from cajolling Cassio into taking one drink too many in Iago’s matey brindisi to his plotting during the grand ensemble in Act 3 where he gets in the ear of both Otello and Roderigo. It was like watching the inner workings of a clock, the springs and cogs visible as Iago’s brain ticked and his eyes flashed and flickered. And when he drops the mask, metaphorically, in his Credo, his oily malevolence chilled. I’ve not always been a fan of Maltman in Verdi but here he impressed with plenty of bite to his baritone and the clarity of his diction was terrific, every word of his playful patter when teasing Piotr Buszewski's Cassio about the handkerchief clearly articulated. 

Piotr Buszewski (Cassio) and Christopher Maltman (Iago)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Russell Thomas has been singing the title role for a few years now and I can only concur with Néstor Castiglione who, at the Hollywood Bowl in 2018, described the tenor’s Otello as “a velvet fist in a velvet glove”. There was a cloudy quality to his voice at the start, his “Esultate!” refusing to ring out in trumpet tones, and when Thomas did press at the top, there were a few dangerous moments, signals that the voice isn’t quite up to the vocal demands yet. Otello’s two great soliloquies in the second half of the evening – the tortured “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” and his closing “Niun mi tema” – were very nicely shaped, full of vocal colour and emotion. Thomas’ acting was limited. His Otello feels like work in progress, but at this stage it is one size too small for this house. 

Russell Thomas (Otello)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Armenian soprano Hrachuhí Bassénz delivered a bland Desdemona, with an underpowered lower register and a top that failed to gleam. Her Ave Maria was keenly felt, coming off better than her Willow Song, but she was at her vocal best in the solo that launched the Act 3 finale. Monika-Evelin Liiv, stepping in as Emilia, was in firm voice, and Romanian bass Alexander Köpeczi was a towering presence – physically and vocally – as Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador. 

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Desdemona), Christopher Maltman (Iago), Royal Opera Chorus and Children's Chorus
© ROH | Clive Barda

Much interest will have been focused on the pit. In critical circles, Daniele Rustioni is the clear frontrunner to take over from Antonio Pappano as the next Music Director. A former Jette Parker Young Artist here, and a Pappano protegé, he is well placed and this is his second gig of the season after Macbeth last autumn. Rustioni has a good ear for Verdi – there was plenty of nuance and colour in the “Fuoco di gioia!” chorus – but momentum seemed to go in fits and starts. Things didn’t really click into place until Iago winds Otello up in their extended scene in Act 2, Rustioni nearly jumping out of the pit at one point. He certainly drew a great sound from the Royal Opera Chorus, often on thrilling form. I will be interested to hear – and watch – Speranza Scappucci who makes her house debut conducting Verdi’s Attila next week. An outside contender?

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Desdemona) and Russell Thomas (Otello)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Much as I lament the ditching of Elijah Moshinsky’s production, Keith Warner’s staging does an effective job. He’s a little too fond of Boris Kudlička’s sliding panels which give the set a queasy feel for much of Act 1, and Bruno Poet’s lighting ranges from too dark, for much of the evening, to too bright for Desdemona’s bedchamber where the glare from her John Lewis bedlinen stings the eyes. The giant plaster statue of St Mark’s winged lion motored in slowly for the Act 3 finale, suddenly cranking into life for a comically swift exit, symptomatic of an evening that felt under-rehearsed.