Oct. 17 Met simulcast: Otello

Aleksandrs Antonenko (center, right) as Otello, standing over Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) in the Met production of Verdi's "Otello" (photo: Ken Howard)

Aleksandrs Antonenko (center, right) as Otello, standing over Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) in the Met production of Verdi’s “Otello” (photo: Ken Howard)

The Met delivers a colorblind ‘Otello’ whose Moor is as white as Desdemona 

Should dramatic integrity in Shakespeare be compromised in the name of “political correctness?”

By David Abrams

Opera audiences have long grown accustomed to colorblindness in the casting of principal roles, content to sacrifice some degree of dramatic credibility in order to experience a diversity of singing actors.

I enjoyed watching Eric Owens play the title role in Verdi’s Macbeth this past summer at Glimmerglass, and marveled at his booming voice — even if the great African-American bass didn’t look especially Scottish. But then, the issue of race is not an organic part of Macbeth.

The same cannot be said for the Othello, Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy whose title character is a dark-skinned Moor laden with self-doubts about acceptance into white Venetian society, and whose vulnerabilities will be exploited ruthlessly by the antagonist, Iago.

Unlike Macbeth, the race card in Othello must be played if the integrity of the story is to be maintained. To do otherwise is to trivialize the entire first act of the Bard’s play — where Desdemona’s father Brabantio makes no bones about his distaste for interracial marriage. It is precisely the Moor’s racial insecurity that gives Iago a vein through which to inject his poison.

Bereft of the visual image of a black man struggling for acceptance in a white man’s world, the tragedy of Otello loses much of its raison d’être. Yet the Met, in this new Barlett Sher production of the Verdi adaptation (Otello), reversed itself and removed the bronze makeup from Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko’s dressing room.

For the first time in its 100-plus-year history of staging this opera, the Met opted for a white Moor. And the decision came at the cost of the drama — both with respect to Shakespeare’s version and the Boito/Verdi adaptation.

Aleksandrs Antonenko in bronze makeup as the Moor Otello, before the Met's decision to abandon it

Aleksandrs Antonenko in bronze makeup as the Moor Otello, before the Met’s decision to abandon it

Reasonable people will agree that gratuitous use of blackface in theater is patently offensive. But there’s nothing gratuitous about the application of makeup necessary for a light-skinned actor to portray a dark-skinned character when the color of one’s skin is an integral part of the story. Score the company’s first-ever colorblind production of Otello Political Correctness 1; Opera and Drama 0.

Whatever may be said of the sociopolitical aspects of this Otello (and the lack of convincing acting by the three principal singers), there’s little question that the vocal efforts were first-rate, with no weak links to be found among the cast.

Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona (photo: Ken Howard)

Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona (photo: Ken Howard)

Sonya Yoncheva all but stole the show as Desdemona. The Bulgarian soprano sang with an angelic purity of voice when we first hear her in the first act Love Duet with Antonenko.

“You told me of your life in exile,” she sings — a reference no doubt to her husband’s racial struggles as much as his battles defending Venice. I was also moved by Yoncheva’s passionate kiss (bacio) with Otello, which under the scrutiny of the close-up camerawork exuded heartfelt devotion.

Yoncheva’s velvety soprano was especially alluring during her tragic aria near the end of Act Three, as her character mourns the loss of Otello’s love (A terra! — si, nel livido). But her true tour de force came with the fourth act Willow Song and Ave Maria couplet, where Yoncheva’s hushed delivery, adorned every so gently by the Met Orchestra woodwind section, brought lumps to the throats of listeners across some 70 countries.

Except for Plácido Domingo, I haven’t heard many of the great Otellos who are said to have “owned” this role. But I have heard more than a fair share of voices that were not up to the demands of the part.

Like Domingo, Aleksandrs Antonenko has a voice with sufficient depth for a heldentenor, and the stamina to survive four acts of vocal torture. The Latvian tenor’s sturdy voice remained strong and well projected throughout the performance, and he navigated the role’s ubiquitous high register passages with confidence and poise.

The "colorblind" Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, without the bronze makeup

The “colorblind” Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, without the bronze makeup

As an actor, Antonenko was not especially effective — although the heroic quality of his vocal delivery went a long way in mitigating any dramatic shortcomings.

Antonenko did raise some goose bumps at the end of Act Two when his character forcefully spits out his oath of vengeance. Still, it was rather difficult to feel pity for the man when, at the end of Act Three, he collapses onstage at the feet of Iago (who famously proclaims to the crowd “Behold the Lion!”); or when Otello later realizes in horror that he has killed the woman who had remained steadfastly faithful.

The character of Iago stands at the center of this opera. As the vengeful ensign to Otello who is passed over for promotion to captain in favor of Cassio, Iago exacts a slow and steady psychological revenge on his boss that is so coldly calculated and meticulously executed it places him among the most heinous villains in opera repertory. Little wonder Verdi and librettist Boito originally considered naming this opera Iago.

Željko Lučić as Iago (photo: Ken Howard)

Željko Lučić as Iago (photo: Ken Howard)

As the quintessential villain, Željko Lučić gets my vote as the most convincing of the three principal actors, adding weight and credibility to his character with a variety of facial expressions that ranged from obsequious to pure evil.

The Serbian baritone, who also plays Scarpia in Tosca this season at the Met, sang well Saturday — although there was a thinness to his high notes that suggested signs of strain. (I recall the same problem in his Rigoletto two years ago). I also thought that Lučić’s character lacked the necessary fire and brimstone in the second act Credo, although it must be said that his high register was at its strongest during this lengthy number.

I may have better enjoyed Lučić’s performance had I not thought back to Falk Struckmann’s unforgettable Iago of 2012, whose Credo shook the walls of 4,000-seat Met Opera House.

As Cassio, Dimitri Pittas cut a handsome figure whose dashing looks and pleasant tenor helped render plausible Iago’s trumped-up claims of Desdemona’s infidelity. Pittas’s duet with Lučić, as Iago manipulates him into drinking and later fighting with Roderigo, was well done, as was the sword-fight scene  a handsome and stunning visual moment that must have required considerable rehearsing.

Among the smaller roles, Austrian bass Günther Groissböck’s Lodovico looked the part of the Ambassador of Venice, and his sturdy and meaty bass made me wish he had a greater role to play here. (I look forward to his performance as Hermann on the Oct. 31 HD Simulcast of Tannhäuser.) The cast was rounded out by Jennifer Johnson Cano as Desdemona’s servant, Emilia; Chad Shelton, who plays Iago’s patsy, Roderigo; and Jeff Mattsey as the former governor of Cyprus, Montano.

Bartlett Sher, who sets the clock ahead some four centuries to the late-19th century, staged the busy moments of heavy traffic well shuffling the principal actors smartly alongside the chorus the first act Drinking Scene and again during the lengthy scene at the end of Act Three, where Otello comes completely unglued in front of the crowd.

Sher used the large Met Opera Chorus as a mostly immobile Greek Chorus that stood ceremoniously outside the circle of action, which I thought was a nice psychological touch. But I’m at a loss to comprehend why Sher placed Desdemona in a full-length gown during the middle of a ferocious thunder and lightening storm at the turbulent opening scene. Are we to presume that the wife of the Governor of Cypress doesn’t own a deeper wardrobe?

Lighting Designer Donald Holder and Projection Designer Luke Halls combined for some striking visual effects in this storm scene, with lightening darting through the dark ominous clouds that spiraled across the stage.

Set designer Es Devlin did all she could with Sher’s translucent sliding container  a motif of questionable value that Sher explained to host Eric Owens during the HD Simulcast interview was inspired by Boito’s warning to Verdi. “If you use the chorus at the end of Act Three,” Sher quotes Boito, “it will be tantamount to putting a fist through the glass prism that houses Otello.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

From the anachronistic look of the set, I suspect we would have been better off had Sher never come across this quote.

As is the case with Wagnerian music drama, Otello uses continuous music in place of arias and recitatives, and this gave the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra a chance to shine. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the instrumentalists in a tightly knit rendition of this mammoth orchestral score whose writing afforded several individual sections of the ensemble an opportunity to display their wares. 

The delicate divisi cello passages that set up the sensuous Love Duet at the end of Act One captured the purity and innocence of Desdemona, and pitch in this tricky altissimo register was smack-on. Led by some sumptuous English horn playing, the woodwind section shined throughout the poignant and mournful Willow Song. Last but not least, the foreboding string bass unison passage that announces Otello’s entrance as he prepares to smother Desdemona in the final act sent pre-Halloween chills throughout the theater. The Met Opera Chorus, though given less to do in Otello than Verdi’s earlier operas, boldly delivered the goods during the storm scene.

During the curtain calls I struggled to place this Bartlett Sher production into perspective, eventually concluding that this Otello, buoyed by fine singing and strong support from the pit, would have worked better had I kept my eyes closed throughout the performance. In this way, the lead role would have remained a Moor and Sher’s ridiculous glass containers would not have spoiled the proper sense of time and place.

I understand this may not fit everyone’s definition of an ideal operatic experience. But then, neither does a colorblind Otello.

Details Box:
What: Verdi’s Otello (new production), Simulcast Live in HD
Libretto: Arrigo Boito
When: Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Production: Bartlett Scher, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

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