Last seen at Teatro alla Scala 145 years ago and since relegated to the provincial festival scene, Gioachino Rossini's Otello was rolled out in a new staging by Jürgen Flimm, sets inspired by conversations with German artist Anselm Kiefer. Following its Milanese première in 1823 and running 98 performances through 1870, Rossini's Shakespearean drama is one of his three opere serie written for Naples (among Armida and Mosè in Egitto), where it premiered in 1816. The fanciful libretto under Francesco Berio di Salsa is based more on the five act tragedy Othello, ou, Le more de Venise by Jean François Ducis than Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Gregory Kunde (Otello), Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona) and Juan Diego Flórez (Rodrigo) © Matthias Baus | Teatro alla Scala
Gregory Kunde (Otello), Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona) and Juan Diego Flórez (Rodrigo)
© Matthias Baus | Teatro alla Scala

As a promotion of his art, Keifer's painterly, singular set was similar to his In the Beginning stage work from an operatic commission by Opéra Bastille in 2009 to mark its 20th anniversary – leaden atmospheres over abstract, ancient ruins. For Otello, an ambiguous, monolithic, windowless tent over white sand was rendered atmospheric under Sebastian Alphons' lights such as orange sunset palls, periwinkle predawns, or milky, grey fog wreaths. Tent fabrics were denigrated with the vagaries of weather. Underfoot sand alluded to a desolate desert, locked away from daylight until the finale, when tent walls collapsed earthbound and exposed stage guts.

The cast gamboled over metal, outdoor furniture arranged into a banquet table during Act I’s senate chamber, which was deconstructed into small groupings through Act II's wedding. A rare Venetian nudge was an ominous, black gondola carried by ten gondoliers into Desdemona’s bedroom, laid with a trunk, which served as a sacrificial alter to knife-wielding Otello. As the Dante-spouting gondolier, Sehoon Moon spirited a lyric "Nessun maggior dolore".

Ursula Kudrna's era-spanning, romantic costumes were anchored by a chorus wrapped in 19th century, chilly blacks – males in top hats and white ascot over tuxedo, and females in hoop skirts padded by servants in 17th century Dutch lace ruff collars. Through Flimm's meticulous, self-possessed direction, characters were arranged in harmonious Bramantean sketches, driven by unremittent, volatile passions barely hid by bourgeoisie facades. Politeness was not a duty.

Against conductor Muhai Tang's inertia, measures were propelled by pure velocity. Rossini's dynamic, elegant score was extinguished under neglect – fiery duets scraped past in dry rustles, passions were quelled into pulseless couplings. Even chorus master Bruno Casoni's chorus was unengaged, from the opening exultation to the wedding.

Edgardo Rocha (Iago) and Juan Diego Flórez (Rodrigo) © Matthias Baus | Teatro alla Scala
Edgardo Rocha (Iago) and Juan Diego Flórez (Rodrigo)
© Matthias Baus | Teatro alla Scala

Sung by Edgardo Rocha in clear voice and brilliant acuti, Jago was a Sybarite with boy band facial hair and sharp tailoring. Flimm turned Rossini's marginalized tenor role into an aristocratic bad boy. Omnipresent, radiating hate and malice, he skulked the background, making out with Desdemona's handmaidens or leering from tent entrances. As witness to Otello's Act II garden consternation, he slumped insouciantly in a lawn chair and twirled an empty wine glass in his hands. Never far from lusty violence, during the Act I wedding finale trio, he pushed Emilia to the floor (sung discreetly and generously by Annalisa Stroppa in purple antebellum dress). Later, in the Act II finale, Roberto Tagliavini's Elmiro mirrored punitive anger and threw his daughter to the floor.

In extraordinarily-flexible bel canto and sterling diction, Juan Diego Flórez's Rodrigo, in a ruffled-collared dress shirt, capped luminous high notes with finesse. Following a heartfelt “Che ascolto! Ah come mai non senti” and a strident duet with Jago "No, non temer", he brought great energy and conviction to the boldfaced duel with Otello.

Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona) and Gregory Kunde (Otello) © Matthias Baus | Teatro alla Scala
Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona) and Gregory Kunde (Otello)
© Matthias Baus | Teatro alla Scala

In a seafaring silhouette of a romantic white shirt and ankle-skimming grey wool jacket, bari-tenor Gregory Kunde's Otello affected a roguish African general. The sweaty, disheveled, cussing brawler roared convincingly, swept up in jealousy and despair. Following Nicola Pamio's doddering, stony Doge in flowing, brocade robes, Kunde's Act I cavatina "Ah! sì, per voi già sento" began lugubrious and molten, but chilled to a tormented monologue by Act III's  “Eccomi giunto inosservato”. A bronzed, resonant middle over a dramatic lower register made for a disarming, lyric top – the Act II duettino was an incredible mix of burnished glean polished by Jago's quicksilver.

In a gown of water-colored feathers, Olga Peretyatko's abject, sulky Desdemona showed promise in the Act I Emilia duettino, but mastered little depth, decorum, sympathy or agitation in the following acts. "Canzone del salice" and its prayers were correct in prowess, ornamentation and veracity, but nuance was tethered to economic, monochromatic shades.