Otello, one of Verdi's greatest operas, returned to the Teatro di San Carlo after eight years, in a staging which was impressive mainly on the musical side, with Lianna Haroutounian providing a moving performance as Desdemona and Marco Berti and Roberto Frontali rendering strong interpretations as Otello and Iago respectively. Otello had its première at La Scala in 1887. It had been 15 years since Aida, Verdi’s previous opera, and the composer himself, who was in his 70s, was unsure of its merits, until the curtain came down at the end of the opening night, and he received thunderous applause.

Marco Berti (Otello) and Lianna Haroutounian (Desdemona) © Teatro San Carlo Napoli
Marco Berti (Otello) and Lianna Haroutounian (Desdemona)
© Teatro San Carlo Napoli

The opera is set on Cyprus, a Venetian dominion, where the Moor is governor: he is returning from a war against the Turks but a storm is raging and his ship is in peril. This is one of the most awesome tempests ever put to music. Verdi's score for Otello is certainly one in which there is the greatest innovation in his dramatic and musical language. It includes the whole range of human emotions put into music, from the breathtaking crash of thunder and waves of the storm at the beginning, to an inspired love duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of first act (“Già nella notte densa”), to Iago’s dark considerations on the nature of evil (“Credo in un Dio crudel”) to Desdemona’s aching 'Willow Song' and Ave Maria in Act IV.

Henning Brockhaus’ direction obsessively focuses on the constant presence of death and loss of innocence. Before the thundering storm clashes, Iago rips a large canvas on which is reproduced The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, thus initiating the tragedy. Death becomes even more intrusive at the end of Act I when, while Otello and Desdemona are singing the love duet, two doubles lay out the corpses of the Muslims killed by Otello in the centre stage and cover them with a white veil, which becomes their bridal bed.

Otello © Teatro San Carlo Napoli
Otello
© Teatro San Carlo Napoli

Brockhaus clear intention was to give up any realism. His Cyprus is a place which is the contrary of Eden, a den of evil and vices, and as the scene shows the island closed among huge rocks, eerie mime-clowns cross the stage, representing the embodiment of Otello’s (and our) ghosts and terrors.

At the end, however, it was to the singers rather than the director that the audience addressed its thunderous applause: the firm-voiced Marco Berti, the refined Lianna Haroutounian and the vibrant Roberto Frontali.

Berti’s Otello was overwhelming in his intensity, even if his gestures are never ferocious. Vocally, his tenor overcame every difficulty in the score. Otello is manipulated by the most sinister villain ever to appear on stage, and his repressed emotions are brought out, thus unveiling his darkest side and transforming him from a brave commander-in-chief and tender husband into an obsessed, self-destructive man who is easily manipulated by the meanest insinuations. The tenor expresses his anguish in “Dio! mi potevi scagliar”, an impassioned lament over Desdemona's supposed infidelity. His rendering of the final scene was both frightening and poignant.

Marco Berti (Otello) © Teatro San Carlo Napoli
Marco Berti (Otello)
© Teatro San Carlo Napoli

Lianna Haroutounian was at her finest in an intense conception of the role. Her Desdemona complemented Otello’s disturbed temperament, with a convincing interpretation of a young bride, chaste and naïve, who reacts audaciously to her husband’s false charges, at the beginning of Act III. Her “Willow Song” and the Ave Maria were beautifully sung. Haroutounian's rich, full tones produced such tender pain and prayerful compassion that she created a real empathy with the audience.

Roberto Frontali was a frightening Iago; his single-minded hatred for the Moor and his indomitable determination to destroy him and all the world around him were provided by the baritone with mellifluous tones. Nonetheless, his “Credo” was intense and frightening, his voice rich and powerful. Alessandro Liberatore was a good Cassio, as were Antonello Ceron as Roderigo, Seung Pil Choi as Ludovico, Ventceslav Anastasov as Montano and Anna Malavasi as Emilia.

The conducting of Nicola Luisotti was excellent: under his baton, the chorus and orchestra of San Carlo showed their worth. The energy of the storm, the complex concertato in Act III, the tragic fourth act – everything registered under the energetic baton of the conductor, contributing to a fine performance.