This marked the first revival of the Bartlett Sher/Es Devlin-designed Otello that was first seen on opening night 2015. Mr Sher’s updating the action to the late 19th century certainly does no harm, and is otherwise non-interventionist. The Met’s decision to do away with blackface for Otello immediately removes his sense of aloneness and otherness but was done in all good faith in the name of political correctness. Considering race plays such a great part in this story it makes little sense, however, and no cause for Otello’s hypersensitivity and fragility has been offered to take its place. Certainly Iago’s scheming could bring out the jealousy in most men, but Otello’s wild outbursts and his inability to handle thoughts of betrayal need more cause. Nor is he portrayed as particularly older than Desdemona. The core of the character is missing.

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

Es Devlin’s giant sets, remain a mysterious choice. Four or five rolling, plexiglass walls slide in and out to imply settings. They’re relatively ugly, but their real problem is that they suggest neither place nor time. The only piece of furniture is the marriage bed, which inexplicably slides into place after the scene in which the locals serenade Desdemona – walls get quietly rearranged, and there we are – in a bedroom, not having moved an inch. And the grand, third act scene in which the Venetian delegation arrives at the castle, lacked grandeur entirely within its transparent room dividers. Incomprehensible at best, truly annoying at worst, one must wonder what was on Devlin and Sher’s minds.

The singing varied in quality. Stuart Skelton was the Otello. Having cancelled the opening night due to illness, Skelton, who has offered a very fine Tristan and an excellent Siegmund at the Met, was eagerly awaited. “Valiant” is probably the best word for his performance. After a good “Esultate!,” always a terror for any tenor, Skelton was fine, if cautious, in the love duet, but by the second act, real vocal trouble implied a continued imposition. Cracking on held high notes, missing pitches above the staff and awkward phrasing made the audience, if not the tenor, anxious. Before the third act, we were told that despite an indisposition, Mr Skelton would continue. Vocally, he threw caution to the wind and sang out mostly splendidly, particularly fine in “Niun mi tema”. One might argue with his physicality, but Mr Sher has given his Otello little to do to express his rage and emotional deterioration.

Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Željko Lučić (Iago) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Željko Lučić (Iago)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Željko Lučić seems to be the Met’s go-to baritone, and while he rarely thrills, he’s always dependably good. His Iago is a nasty piece of business, the “Credo” taken at face value with no inner torment. His baritone is rock solid and has the fine pianissimo touches needed for “Era la notte”, but there is a sameness to his singing which belies the character’s duplicity. Anyone who has ever heard Tito Gobbi’s wicked, underhand portrayal will understand how the role can practically take over the opera.

I needn’t say much about Sonya Yoncheva's Desdemona, since it touched perfection almost consistently. Warm and girlish in the first act, noble and confused in the second and outraged by the third, she presented the deepest portrayal of the evening. The voice still has a hint of Callas in mid-range, which fascinates. And her top notes have a warm vibrato or a cutting edge – she can do both, and to great effect. Her Ave Maria was hypnotic; would that the conductor have gone straight into the double bass solo so as to stop the applause that interrupted the mood.

Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Stuart Skelton (Otello) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and Stuart Skelton (Otello)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The Emilia of Jennifer Johnson Cano impressed, particularly in the second act quartet and Alexey Dolgov’s Cassio was well sung and thoroughly believable. James Morris was the Lodovico, the same role he sang 46 years ago, under Karl Böhm. The rest of the cast were more than worthy.

This revival marked the house debut of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who led a blazing performance, from start to finish, keeping the amazing Met Orchestra  and Met Chorus (credit Donald Palumbo) in perfect unison. So powerful was the opening chord that the audience seemed pushed backwards into our seats. Dudamel got to the heart of the tragedy and clearly understood the emotional downward spiral of our hero. The sighs from the orchestra at the start of “Dio mi potevi” implied epic sadness. Thrilling.

One still wishes the show’s physical presence were better, more specific and deeper (even the swirling “whatevers” projected onto a scrim to imply dark foreboding looked more like screensavers than anything else), but with Yoncheva as Desdemona and Dudamel in the pit it is still a grand show.

****1