‘Otello’ at the Metropolitan Opera Review

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Decision to scrap blackface from Otello ‘not complicated’, Met director says.

The most radical aspect of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “Otello,” unveiled for the season’s opening night on Monday, was its break with an outmoded theatrical tradition: Aleksandrs Antonenko, the white tenor singing the title role, did not wear blackface makeup. Though general manager Peter Gelb might be weary of putting out fires, it’s not altogether bad to have a little controversy before the opening of a season at the Met.The premiere of a chilly, slow-starting but eventually fiery “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera brought out big stars, bright gowns and deep thoughts about the green-eyed monster, which looms large in Verdi’s classic drawn from Shakespeare. “Jealousy is really dangerous,” said Brooke Shields, who accompanied her producer husband Chris Henchy to the gala event Monday night at Lincoln Center. “Whenever I’ve felt myself slipping into envy, I put on the brakes and totally change my way of thinking.On Saturday night she and her husband joined guests at an exclusive screening of Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards’s bio-documentary at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in New York.

We can certainly do without blackface and its racist baggage, but without that visual cue, the director has to find other ways to demonstrate that Otello, a Moor in command of the Venetian forces on Cyprus, is an outsider, and thus easily duped. When the English National Opera put the opera on in 2014, tenor Stuart Skelton was the first in any major opera company at any time to play the role without blackface.

When you see a stage crowded with people in generic 19th-century costumes, with a dark, vaguely abstracted set and dramatic white lighting, the year could be 1985 or 2015, but you know you’re at the Met. I try to celebrate everybody’s gifts.” The actress acknowledged it’s not always easy. “I have coveted on occasion,” she told the Daily News. “I’ve coveted confidence on occasions when I didn’t have it.” The grown-up “Pretty Baby” actress looked assured on Monday, chatting pre-show with Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn. The 70-year-old, looking much younger than her age as always, slipped into a colourful ankle-length frock decorated with a print of children’s drawings of red flowers, white houses, rainbows and blue skies. Worked on by the malevolent Iago, Otello flips in an instant from a bold, confident commander into a jealous paranoid, convinced on the flimsiest evidence that his saintly wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful. And while the use of blackface in productions of Shakespeare’s Othello in theatres died out many years ago, its use in Verdi’s opera is still near-ubiquitous.

The staging was dominated by clear, see-through houses, a canny way to underscore the idea that you can’t see into the hearts and minds of men and women. On top of that, the Met is known as one of the most conservative institutions, in an industry which is in many ways already very resistant to change at its upper echelons. “It’s been an automatic thing, particularly for the Met, which has tended to be very traditional in how they’ve done things,” Heller said. “They’re following the tradition of all the great Otellos – when you look at all these great singers who’ve done the role, they’re all in blackface.” The controversy over this particular production may have begun when the Met’s season-book blithely carried a picture of Otello in blackface on its cover, which caused a flurry of outrage. Labor disputes and articles about the company’s financial struggles took the last of the bloom off the Peter Gelb rose; the executive director who promised big changes when he took over in 2006 is struggling as much as any of his predecessors.

And yet, the lack of offensive makeup to one side, the matter of a light-skinned tenor playing “the Moorish captain” still poses dramatic questions (in addition to legitimate concerns about casting diversity, in the first instance). Otello (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) can’t see wife Desdemona (Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva) is true blue and that evil Iago (Serbian baritone Zelijko Lucic) is a poisonous frenemy.

In a year in which the national conversation has re-examined attitudes toward civil rights in America, the apparent lack of thought seemed insensitive at best. Generally, experts told the Guardian that it has previously been “practically automatic” for singers playing the part to use blackface – just as extravagant Asian-style makeup known as “yellowface” is still the norm for productions of Madama Butterfly. “The sort of visual worlds that are being represented are very fixed in a certain way,” said Dr Arman Schwartz, a musicologist at the University of Birmingham who researches modernism and modernity in opera. “I also feel like a work like Otello hasn’t been at the forefront of innovative operatic productions,” he added.

To save money at this year’s opening, the Met even dispensed with what had become an annual tradition of live-broadcasting the performance onto Lincoln Center Plaza. And because Verdi and his librettist cut Shakespeare’s first act – with its references to Otello’s experience under slavery and its depiction of early reactions to his interracial union with Desdemona – the danger with Verdi’s Otello is that the captain will come across as simply a paranoid person who is devoid of motivation, and too easily manipulated by Iago. I’ve always found that the people who are the most jealous are the ones who you need to worry about,” he said. “Half my exes are Brazilian so I know about jealousy.” Patricia Clarkson, of “High Art” and “The Maze Runner” movies, does, too. “I’m a red-blooded, hot-blooded woman. It also dispensed with the time-honored tradition of hiring big stars for opening night; Aleksandrs Antonenko, Zeljko Lucic and the dazzling Sonya Yoncheva are familiar to some regular operagoers, but hardly household names. I’ve never been driven to extremes like (the fatal ones in the opera), but I’ve had passionate love affairs and been abandoned and forsaken by a man.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. Everything was very dark, with Donald Holder’s elegant chiaroscuro lighting used to pick out telling details, like Desdemona’s white dress seen through a storm.

I still do in some cases.” She has a kindred spirit in Danish fashion model and opera-phile Helena Christensen, who said, “I don’t think I’d be a human being if I hadn’t been motivated by jealousy at times. Set designer Es Devlin framed the stage with two monumental walls set at an oblique angle, and Luke Halls’s haunting black-and-white projections suggested the waves that beat upon the island and cut it off from the rest of the world.

I hope that I controlled it somehow.” “Odd Mom Out” star Jill Kargman admitted she’s not that envious, but “I’m jealous of people who never get stressed-out. This was particularly potent in the Act IV bedroom, where the walls resembled two giant picture windows looking out on a violent sea, in painterly lighting, emblematic of Desdemona’s lonely vulnerability and impending murder.

The “your love saved me” trope is common in opera, but Antonenko’s performance with Yoncheva made this particular recollection of romantic grace sound distinct. Sher wanted this “glass palace” to serve as an architectural representation of the opera’s psychological complexities, but the pieces seemed more like devices enabling characters to hide and spy on each other. The set-unit movement paid off in Act II, when a quick shift of scene in the middle of an exchange between Otello and Iago made it clear that Otello’s jealousy takes more than one conversation to build — redressing a problem that resulted when Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, combined two scenes from Shakespeare’s play into one for the sake of operatic brevity. Catherine Zuber’s 19th-century Risorgimento-era costumes continued the dark theme, with everyone except Desdemona in structured gowns and uniforms in somber colors.

Antonenko and Lucic even have the square, beefy faces of 1960s head shots, evoking the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers — a formidable Otello — to whom the evening was dedicated. The scene in which members of both couples are simultaneously grappling with one another’s motives was a highlight, not least because it showed conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s sly feel for building to one of Verdi’s orchestral climaxes. Nézet-Séguin sounded in lockstep with the orchestra all night long, frequently bringing out delicious details – as with the excitable woodwinds that accompany Otello’s dark glee, in the moment when he believes himself justified in rejecting “love and jealousy together”. If he is missing some dramatic color and passion — and, certainly, tenderness in the love duet with Desdemona — it’s not for lack of trying, as he whomps out one big climax after another, giving burly physicality to the hammer blows of his character’s decline. And his performance had cohered, as well: here was an Otello weary of not quite being able to believe his turn in fortunes, and thus willing to throw good love overboard, rather than live in the eternal grip of insecurity.

Antonenko’s mix of self-righteousness and self-care was subtly powerful here – though you wouldn’t quite know it from the stage lighting favored by Sher’s production. Simplistic, blood-red tints seemed to overtake large portions of the big Met stage whenever a character gave voice to an unkind thought,even when Verdi’s actual music presented a more complex emotional field of play.

Chad Shelton made his company debut in the brief role of Rodrigo; Jennifer Johnson Cano was a clarion Emilia; and Günther Groissböck growled bass-ily and a little foggily as Lodovico. With her full-bodied soprano sound, Sonya Yoncheva brought plenty of warmth and sweetness to Desdemona, and her graceful, pliant movement was appealing to watch. You didn’t believe that she was shedding her first-ever tears when Otello accused her of being a whore, and her “Willow Song,” though very beautiful, didn’t stir the heart. And she had a voice to match, fresh and free and rich, dramatic in her increasingly hard-to-watch standoffs with Otello and achingly poignant in the long final bedroom scene, which can easily become static, but did not.

In the final scene of Act III, Zuber finally cracked out some colors; the sets stood still and behaved; and everything became dramatically, almost cinematically clear. The occasional dramatic gesture—when Desdemona placed her hand on Otello’s heart, or when he seized her by the hair and forced her to the ground—seemed calculated to draw attention, rather than maintain a through-line of dramatic intent. Perhaps the point was the timelessness of this work, a piece as much of our time and of Verdi’s as of Shakespeare’s, with its powerful music both heightening and mitigating the pain of watching it unfold.

Whether declaring his nihilistic hatred in the “Credo,” tossing off a drinking song to rile up a crowd, or pouring insinuating suggestions into willing ears, he was the consummate, fascinating villain.

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