There has already been much written about the Met’s decision to remain true to “colorblind casting” by refusing to present the title character in Otello in dark make-up, this despite the fact that the character is a North African war hero, a “Moor” (in Shakespeare’s words), who finds himself in the much fairer-skinned Venetian society. Boito refers less often to color than does Shakespeare, but much of Otello’s anxiety comes from his racial “otherness,” and so if one takes it away, he’s just a wildly jealous fool. Laurence Olivier played him animalistically and so did Jon Vickers, with a ferocity as terrifying as the music Verdi wrote for him. I’m not advocating for blackface or anything approaching minstrelsy, but his outsider status should be visible. In Bartlett Sher’s new production, it is not. Enough said.

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello) and Željko Lučić (Iago) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello) and Željko Lučić (Iago)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Mr Sher has updated the opera’s action to the time of its composition, with little harm done. In lieu of the Met curtain, there is a blue screen, and with the crashing opening chords, come very effective projections of a stormy sea. The curtain rises to a shadowy stage empty of props, with projections of looming clouds and mist, the chorus, standing stock still, facing the audience and singing magnificently – kudos as usual to Donald Palumbo and his exquisitely tuned and trained chorus. Desdemona appears in the middle of the orchestral and choral tumult in a wedding dress and looks concernedly in the same direction and then leaves a moment or two later. No ship arrives, but tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko strides from the rear to the front of the stage and delivers a suitably trumpet-like “Esultate!” which is his finest singing until Act III. Benches and tables are brought on stage for the “Fuoco di gioia” chorus, during which there is no movement from anyone – the chorus by now is seated – and then the benches and tables are taken away.
Željko Lučić (Iago), Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Željko Lučić (Iago), Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Designer Es Devlin’s set then takes over. It consists of four huge, translucent sliding walls which continue to be moved throughout the first three acts, depicting different places, since they can interconnect to create spaces both intimate and massive. Peculiarly, what is apparently a street in Act II, where the locals serenade Desdemona, suddenly rearranges into her bedchamber, where Iago’s evil plan is cemented and he and Otello plan vengeance. It makes no sense, but at least there are no overturned chairs, umbrellas or Nazis. The incessant movement of the walls eventually becomes distracting and distancing, even, I suspect, to Sher, who dispenses with them for the last act, which features Desdemona’s bed, a chair and a prie-dieu in the midst of the Met’s huge stage. It is both wide open and commendably claustrophobic. Frankly, few traditionalists will be bothered by this production, except for those who like their Otello to be a tragic figure. Here he is confused, in a maze of moving lucite. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are dark and formal in Act I and lavish in the second scene of Act III, in which the Venetian delegation arrives. Desdemona wears a beautiful, strapless red gown that she might have borrowed from Violetta Valery after the party at Flora’s.

Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

It is challenging to discuss what is wrong with Antonenko’s Otello. At his best, he has the right tone, the right squillo, and after an act or two of singing sharp on forte notes and slightly flat in the middle of his voice, he delivered a vocally fine “Dio mi potevi,” save for a rather girlish pianissimo on the high A flat of “aqueto.” His final act was similarly fine, with a “Niun mi tema” of real power and sadness. But he is awkward on stage and his face does not register much. He needed a director to bring out the character’s dignity and some motivation other than being easily conned. Clearly the go-to baritone for big Verdi roles, Željko Lučić sang well but registered little cruelty, joy or victory, even at the close of Act III, with a passed-out Otello on the floor. Dimitri Pittas gave us a playboy Cassio, with youthful verve; Chad Shelton’s Roderigo was large scale, and Günther Groissböck’s Lodovico had great authority.

Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
The stars of the show are unarguably Sonya Yoncheva and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Yoncheva’s proud, noble Desdemona is gorgeously sung, her luscious voice capable of every nuance, with the power to rise over the masses in the third act’s ensemble. She delivered one of the most moving and handsomely sung final acts in memory: Renata Scotto sang it like an introspective Mad Scene, as a Desdemona who had been driven crazy; Caballé, Te Kanawa and Fleming sang it like the great sopranos they are. Yoncheva embodied the loving, wronged, terrified, religious Desdemona. And Nézet-Séguin led the opera with an almost Toscanini-like intensity – the huge scenes were gigantic and the placid moments were atmospheric in an almost tangible manner. The Met audience held its breath in silence between the end of the Ave Maria and the stomach-churning growls of the double-basses that augur Otello’s arrival and the upcoming tragedy.

Nézet-Séguin and Yoncheva received the loudest ovations; Antonenko and Lucic well well-received. For Mr Sher and his team there were boos amidst the applause – almost unheard of for an opening night.