David Alden’s new production of Verdi’s Otello at the English National Opera is interesting chiefly because its Australian-born, Florida-resident tenor, Stuart Skelton decided not to black up for the title role. That’s a little unfair, as his magnificent heldentenor was clarion-bright in tone and unflaggingly dramatic. In truth, I wasn’t for a moment bothered by the political correctness of having a white Otello.
Edward Gardner, in the pit, seemed to me to take the whole piece a bit more slowly and deliberately than usual, but we’re talking fractions of the value of a metronome tick here, and if anything, the orchestra sounded almost Wagnerian and never ponderous. It was one of those welcome occasions when you notice unfamiliar details of a score you’ve heard many times. The chorus was on wonderful vocal form as well, though arranged on stage without much imagination, defaulting to single rows when not given Peter Sellars-like gestures to perform, or awkwardly choreographed. Jon Morrell’s costumes were the usual 1920s or 30s neo-Fascist Italian and his sets were dreary public spaces, excluding the private ones, such as Desdemona’s bedroom, in which this opera actually takes place. This means that Otello murders her in a piazza, in which there is a chair or two, but no bed – which seems much more eccentric than having a white Otello.
Unhappily Mr. Skelton hurls the chair around the stage. This has become such a cliché of opera production, that I’d like to appeal to all directors for a moratorium on chair-throwing for, say, 10 years, after which it might once again become a bit shocking to break up the furniture .
Jonathan Summers is a particularly cold-blooded Iago – a marvellous performance. It’s in the character of Iago that Verdi and his librettist, Boito, most vividly part company with Shakespeare. The Italians seem unable to abide the notion of a motiveless Iago (à la Coleridge, an Iago who does what he does because he is purely and perfectly evil, not because he’s been passed over for promotion, or because he’s perversely in love with Otello himself, or because he’s racist). So they give him his “Credo,” in which he says he worships destruction. I always feel this is a flaw in the opera, as it removes the essential mystery of the character whose creation was Shakespeare’s triumph (as Claggart was Melville’s). Nonetheless, that’s how the opera goes, and Mr Summers did it beautifully, which is to say chillingly.
Mr. Alden has paid his usual attention to the small roles, and both the drunken Roderigo and the prim, spectacled Emilia make their points economically. There is one bit of casting, though, that removes the sting of the drama – Leah Crocetto as a completely unsuitable Desdemona. It seems to me a good deal easier to accept a white Otello than a miscast Desdemona. Of course we’re not allowed any longer to say she doesn’t look the part, so let me say instead that her voice is wobbly, sometimes harsh when it ought to be sweet, and her vowels, particularly her Os, disturbingly, even distressingly American. She improved as the evening progressed, but there was no evident chemistry between her and Otello. There wasn’t much to indicate Otello’s status as an outsider in Cyprus or Venice, and it was difficult to care much about the fate of this Desdemona. With a somewhat different cast, a bit of appropriate furniture, and some directorial intervention to make the singers sing to each other rather than to the audience, this production might be serviceable. But as it uses the splendid, mellifluous translation of Tom Phillips (one of the few times the ENO’s singing-in-English policy makes sense), I have to confess to preferring the production Mr Phillips did for ENO 16 years ago, set in an army camp in Cyprus.