Black-facing. Not just an opera debate in this region, but a yearly heated discussion around the celebration of St Nicholas. Last year the folks in Antwerp reinvented Black (faced) Pete, removing his Afro, golden earrings and red lips. Now soot covers a white chimney sweep. Opera Vlaanderen followed suit with Michael Thalheimer’s psychological concept of Verdi’s Otello. Here, Ian Storey’s Moor is white, except for a clearly outlined mask covering the front of his face with black greasepaint. With little dynamics on stage, I preoccupied myself with unscrambling Thalheimer’s ideas, finding myself mostly unconvinced.

For all four acts, black walls frame an empty stage, suggesting we are inside Otello’s mind. In Act I, in a bewildering moment, Cassio and Roderigo tussle and smear each other with the same grease that covers Otello’s face. Then Iago also gets a touch of paint, though barely. What does this symbolize? How are they supposed to be similar to Otello? Did they want to be like him? I really didn’t know what to think, especially as Cassio rubs his face quite excessively with it.

As the director explains in an interview in the programme book, his Otello is not an outcast. He has integrated within society, but is still is marked as different. Not completely black-faced, Storey’s white skin clearly surrounding his black mask, this concept did not occur to me during the performance. Does Otello really see himself as included? With psychology in mind, it seemed like Storey’s black mask was a symbol for Otello’s jealousy. But even that didn’t feel convincing. Thalheimer’s staging really left a lot to be explained.

How darkly can an opera be lit? It was so dark, you could close your eyes at times. Everyone was dressed in black. Except for the handkerchief and a white wedding dress, with which Otello strangles Desdemona, it was darkness. Stefan Bolliger’s lighting must be acknowledged as highly effective during the rare moments of spotlighting. During gently sung passages by Desdemona, it was difficult not to feel sedated. While in the background Verdi’s wonderful music pushed the story forward, the darkness sometimes felt distractingly trance inducing.

Ian Storey, who was not scheduled for this performance, stepped in for Zoran Todorovich. His vocal skills impressed immensely, although with his black mask it was impossible to see facial expressions. This resulted in an unbalanced Otello: with dark colours, Storey produced a rich and heavy voice, suitable for the role, but he missed his mark dynamically. His presence was clear, but his singing carried little momentum, even his moments of jealousy. Storey's dramatic high point came right before his death, when he belted out "Ho un'arma ancor!" followed by a surprisingly warm "Un bacio..." With that black mask, Storey’s chemistry with Corinne Winters, debuting in her role as an extremely delicate Desdemona, was missing. With zero passion and romance, it was difficult to be swept away in their drama. Winters' fragility shone through in her "Willow Song", but her saving grace turned out to be a luminescent Ave Maria, brightening Thalheimer's darkness. Here Winters demonstrated a dynamic intensity and honesty in her voice that lacked earlier in her chemistry with Otello.

Vladimir Stoyanov turned out to be the star of the evening, depicting a truly venomous Iago. Even though he had some over-the-top movements, such as running frantically back and forth between the walls of Otello’s mind, his voice was controlled, full of menace in his honest solo passages to the audience, while utterly conniving in his interactions with Otello and Cassio.

Adam Smith portrayed the innocent Cassio as a humble gentlemen with a touch of naivety. A warmth and shyness in his voice conveyed his character authentically. His chemistry with Stoyanov produced excellent dramatic tension. Stephan Adriaens as Roderigo and Leonard Bernad as Lodovico also added to the excitement on stage, infusing some humanity in Thalheimer’s frigid setting. When Emilia debunks the honesty of her husband Iago, Kai Rüütel alarmed with her hair-raising voice that provided the necessary energetic impulse at the end of Act IV.

Often with baton raised high up in the air, Alexander Joel propelled the Symphonic Orchestra Opera Flanders through Verdi’s marvellous music, driving the piece forward with an energetic current. This momentum saved the production from its uneventful, overly conceptual staging. Together with Jan Schweiger’s stupendous Choir Opera Flanders, dressed in black with black fishnet stockings covering their heads, Joel delivered the monumental moments of the opera with throbbing energy, pulsating rhythms, and a colour-rich pallette.

Ultimately the unclear ideas and the excessive blackness in Thalheimer’s concept failed to convince, it even left me perplexed at times, but Stoyanov and Joel’s presentation of Verdi’s score made up for these problems.