Otello as a victim of society, a Peter Grimes figure hounded to his end by the populace and their figurehead Iago. This is just one aspect of Michael Thalheimer’s fascinating take on Verdi’s opera that has moved from Flanders Opera, where it launched in the spring, to Düsseldorf, where it opened the new season for the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. This is the already famous ‘black’ Otello, a staging that exists almost purely in a monochrome world – a black box of a set and black costumes for all the singers. The white handkerchief and the wedding dress with which Otello strangles Desdemona are the only exceptions.

Jacquelyn Wagner (Desdemona), Boris Statsenko (Iago) and Zoran Todorovich (Otello) © Hans Jörg Michel
Jacquelyn Wagner (Desdemona), Boris Statsenko (Iago) and Zoran Todorovich (Otello)
© Hans Jörg Michel

The concept is that we are inside Otello’s mind, where Iago is effectively his own dark side, the part of him that enrages a jealousy that is already within him – in effect, Otello is his own worst enemy, it seems to be saying. His self-destruction is a consequence of being an outcast from society, rejected for being different, a difference symbolised by a black face-paint mask that gets round today’s blackface debate while resonating with the otherness at the heart of Shakespeare’s original drama.

Boris Statsenko (Iago) and Zoran Todorovich (Otello) © Hans Jörg Michel
Boris Statsenko (Iago) and Zoran Todorovich (Otello)
© Hans Jörg Michel
The black box is also like a prison cell, in which Otello is imprisoned to his fate. Within this shell, the direction is often stylised, characters disappearing on stage lifts or singing the big ensembles standing in a line. Iago sings his Credo illuminated by a big, white cross, while Otello strikes various crucifixion poses behind him. It is at its most effective in the opening scene, where the chorus steels with ominous purpose from the back of the stage to the front again in one anonymous block of humanity as the storm rages around them. Naturalism necessarily takes a back seat, lighting is strikingly effective yet often the bare minimum and we are able to view with unerring concentration on the characters and their interactions. As a result the dramatic pace is relentless, leading inexorably to a tragic denouement that seems inevitable from the opening bars.

Much of this intensity is also down to the conducting of Axel Kober, who drives an incisive performance from the pit, yet one that is full of subtle colouring and tenderness. The superb Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra played its collective heart out, with many telling details of note from individuals – due credit to the five double basses, who spent the interval perfecting their group solo that underlies the ominous build-up to Desdemona’s strangulation – it duly paid off.

Jacquelyn Wagner (Desdemona) and Zoran Todorovich (Otello) © Hans Jörg Michel
Jacquelyn Wagner (Desdemona) and Zoran Todorovich (Otello)
© Hans Jörg Michel
Serbian tenor Zoran Todorovich, Calaf in Oper am Rhein’s Turandot last season, proved himself an even more apt interpreter of the Moor of Venice: his powerful, incisive voice never flagged and he was able to bring plenty of subtlety to his singing in his tender Act I scene with his wife. Boris Statsenko, Oper am Rhein’s resident bass villain (one can just imagine him as Scarpia), was a terrific Iago, showing just a momentary vocal strain under the pressures of the stentorian Credo but otherwise commanding in voice and presence, even if he wasn’t entirely free from bad-guy gurning – the whites of his eyes can blaze, though. American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner’s Desdemona was a real treat – she has a lovely, open timbre with even tone right across the range and a stage persona that exudes confidence and inspires sympathy for her character.

All the smaller roles were expertly taken, with a credible Cassio from Ovidiu Purcel and sonorous Emilia from Sarah Ferede. And the power and bloom of the choral sound made one wish Verdi had used the chorus more, though there’s just enough of them to justify Thalheimer’s searing re-imagining in what can only be described as a work of pure theatre.