“Beware, my Lord, of jealousy” warns Iago, planting the seed of doubt in Otello’s mind. Beware, too, the dangers of preconceptions. Keen anticipation of this new production of Verdi’s Otello – principally for Stuart Skelton’s role debut and the UK debut of Leah Crocetto – was tempered by the prospect of David Alden as director. I’m in a huge minority when it comes to his Peter Grimes, but the deliberate grotesquery evident in The Borough didn’t work for me. How would Alden treat Verdi’s penultimate opera, one of the most dramatically perfect ever composed? Answer: surprisingly faithfully, in a production of searing intensity.

Stuart Skelton (Otello) © Francis Loney
Stuart Skelton (Otello)
© Francis Loney

Curved walls aged with peeling plaster depict a Cypriot courtyard in Jon Morell’s single set, shifting subtly for each scene. A single pillar descends for the castle hall. Alden shifts the time period to the 1920s and his Otello isn’t ‘blacked up’ despite references to “the Moor” in Tom Phillips’ sensitive translation. In an excellent programme interview, Alden explains that most of the racist barbs against Othello in Shakespeare occur in the Venetian act, which Verdi and his librettist Boito cut. Instead, Otello is presented as an outsider, “an assimilated Muslim, who’s converted to Christianity”. Here’s a man with a violent temper whose descent into madness spirals spectacularly – definite echoes of Alden’s approach to Grimes.

What an Otello we have in Skelton! From his opening cry of “Esultate!” (We have triumphed!), the Australian heldentenor owned the stage. The glint in his eye and the steel in his voice made for a visceral portrayal of a caged tiger. There was anguish in “Ora e per sempre addio” (Now and forever, farewell) and a thrilling ring to the oath, where a blood-letting ritual between Otello and Iago sealed their bond. Skelton can caress a vocal line too; the love duet was tender, without resorting to crooning.

Leah Crocetto (Desdemona) © Alastair Muir
Leah Crocetto (Desdemona)
© Alastair Muir

Alden closely associates Desdemona with religious iconography. Before the storm is unleashed from the pit, she falls to her knees to pray. An icon of the Virgin Mary is placed next to her when she receives flowers from the Cypriot children, a portrait which is then hung on the wall and pierced by Iago and the naïve Cassio in a game of darts: Desdemona’s fate is sealed. Crocetto possesses a genuine spinto soprano of considerable power, easily filling the cavernous Coliseum, spinning out long phrases. She has the potential to be a significant Verdi soprano. I detect a metallic edge to her sound, which doesn’t sit comfortably with a character requiring something a little softer, a little creamier, when floating top notes. The climax of the Willow Song was unwieldy, but she followed it with a lovely Ave Maria.

As Iago, Jonathan Summers’ eyes and ears are everywhere yet publicly, he is barely acknowledged. Having the ensign played by an older man, Alden turns Iago into a trusty sidekick, someone who’s seemingly cast aside ambition. You suspect that when Iago was overlooked as captain in favour of Cassio, it wasn’t for the first time. Years of resentment have accrued and when he slams closed the shutters, he vents his spleen to the audience. Summers delivers a malevolent Credo which drips with evil, but as soon as Otello arrives, puffing a cigar, the affable ensign returns. Verdi and Boito saw Iago as central to the opera; he was nearly made the title character. Alden’s Iago silently intrudes on the closing pages of the love duet and is the sole witness to Otello’s death throes, sitting motionless, emotionless. Is this really Iago’s moment of triumph?

Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Jonathan Summers (Iago) © Alastair Muir
Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Jonathan Summers (Iago)
© Alastair Muir

Not everything comes off. Hand-jive choreography in the Fire Chorus is quirky and it was unfortunate to keep the Act II chorus of Cypriots off-stage, leaving actors and dancers to present Desdemona with gifts. The absence of a bed in Act IV was perverse, forcing prim, bespectacled Emilia (excellently sung by Pamela Helen Stephen) to lay Desdemona’s wedding dress over a chair, Desdemona herself expiring not in “the bed where she has sinned”, but – by necessity – on the floor. When Otello unsheathes a dagger to stab himself, nobody tries to stop him; they all slink away into the shadows, leaving him to perish under Iago’s watchful eye. However, donning Peter Van Hulle in white suit and Panama hat as a foppish Roderigo worked wonderfully. There was strength in depth in ENO’s casting, Allan Clayton a strong Cassio and Barnaby Rea a dignified, sturdy Lodovico.

Stuart Skelton (Otello) © Alastair Muir
Stuart Skelton (Otello)
© Alastair Muir

Edward Gardner’s ensured the orchestra performance was as visceral as Skelton’s Otello. Here was Verdian playing to the manner born: a thrilling tempest, throbbing strings as Iago narrates “Cassio’s dream” and woodwinds casting a tremulous spell of unease in the Act IV introduction. The Chorus wowed in an astonishing choral entry in Act III, full of Venetian pomp, even if dressed in Victorian garb. Gardner marshalled his forces in a terrific rendition, which could teach one or two Italians how to conduct Verdi. Strongly recommended.