There were some not-to-be-missed performances last evening in Verdi’s Otello at the Staatsoper.

Maria Bengtsson as Countess Almaviva; Christopher Maltman as Count Almaviva © ROH / Douet
Maria Bengtsson as Countess Almaviva; Christopher Maltman as Count Almaviva
© ROH / Douet

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a god amongst men whose interpretation of Iago, Otello’s villainous ensign, was completely on the mark. Resplendent in his white ponytail, black leather and tattoos, he completely embodied the treacherous scoundrel bent on Otello’s destruction. Vocally, he was powerful and at ease in the role, combining technical perfection with brilliant variety of color and clear delivery of text. Act II was a particular highlight when, voice tinged with bitter sarcasm, he divulged his nihilistic worldview in “Credo in un Dio crudel”. No less impressive was the simple purity with which he recounted hearing Cassio dreaming of Desdemona – “Era la notte, Cassio dormia”. He was audible to the back of the hall, even in his softest pianissimo. Rarely does one consistently hear a baritone more clearly than the lead tenor, but that was the case last evening. Hvorostovsky’s voice on its own already made the performance exceptional.

José Cura was authentic as the powerful, paranoid commander Otello, though he often found himself overwhelmed by the orchestra. The chemistry between him and his Desdemona was also somewhat unconvincing, even during the beautiful love duet at the end of Act I, though this was certainly not his responsibility alone. His interactions with Iago were dramatically effective, as was his mounting jealous rage towards Desdemona. His ominous “Diceste questa sera le vostre preci?” was particularly gripping and wonderfully executed.

Anja Harteros failed to win me over completely until Act IV despite having a beautiful voice with exceptional fullness in its low register. Initially, she did not come across as a natural actress, particularly in her scenes with Otello. It is also quite possible that she felt less than free on stage in her unflattering white nightgown and incongruous silver pumps. However, any reservations I had about her were irrevocably silenced within a few bars of the “Salce” scene with Emilia. It and the “Ave Maria” which followed were exceptionally sung and movingly portrayed. Each “Salce” was unique, and Harteros’ control in pianissimo and ability to support a long legato line are astounding. I’m certain that I was not the only one surreptitiously wiping my eyes as Otello silenced her forever. We were all very sorry to hear the last of her for the evening.

Additionally, there were some excellent performances by many of the minor characters as well, this production being particularly strongly cast throughout. Alexandru Moisiuc shone as Lodovico and Monika Bohinec was an unusually fresh-sounding Emilia, just to mention two. Both are certainly capable of commanding larger roles.

Dan Ettinger led a massive ensemble including the Staatsoper orchestra, Staatsoper chorus, and a children’s ensemble with considerable skill over and around a lot of tricky musical corners. The chorus was impressively together and in general enunciated convincingly, not an easy task in this work. They should be applauded not just for their musical prowess but for not boycotting the production. Due to the lack of proper choreography they found themselves forced to dance awkwardly or mill around through both chorus scenes in the first two acts. It was a particular shame when the children’s choir performed a repetitive, lackluster step-kick throughout their otherwise delightful “Dove guardi splendono raggi”. It is hard to believe that one of the top houses in the world tolerate choreography and staging this weak. Any local community theatre would have spent a bit more effort on the details.

At the end of the night, I was left questioning why Verdi’s music and Boito’s libretto are not considered enough for a successful production. Personally, I would have easily preferred this opera completely unstaged last night. Christine Mielitz and Christian Floeren’s revived “modern” interpretation of Verdi’s penultimate opera was a complete disappointment. Full of bloodied hands, leatherwear, aimless movement, filmy gauze, blinding industrial stagelights, metal grilles and unending video footage of passing clouds, this production is anything but innovative and added nothing to the drama.

Moreover, tired, unrelated conception and pointless direction actually detracted from this brilliantly constructed, dramatically charged masterpiece. Verdi’s instrumentation and style – musically contrasting the innocence of Desdemona with Iago’s poisonous influence which spreads to infect Cassio, Rodrigo and Otello – is by itself profoundly gripping. Furthermore, poor conception interferes with the efforts of the musicians who work to bring these scores and characters to life.

Fortunately, the audience in Vienna took it all in with their ears, not with their eyes. Cura, Harteros, Hvorostovsky and Ettinger all received frenetic applause and numerous curtain calls.

***11