Thursday, 25 September 2014

Verdi's Otello at ENO - Second View

Jonathan Summers and Stuart Skelton in Verdi's Otello at English National Opera - photo Alastair Muir
Jonathan Summers and Stuart Skelton
photo Alastair Muir
Verdi Otello; Stuart Skelton, Leah Crocetto, Jonathan Summers, dir. David Alden, cond. Edward Gardner; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 18 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Mixed results from new production with Stuart Skelton singing his first Otello

Whilst Hilary reviewed the Opera Undressed performance of 
 David Alden's new production of Verdi's Otello at the London Coliseum, I caught up the the production on 19 September.  Things opened in promising manner, with a town populace assembled in a public space by the main gate (a Mediterranean island circa 1920, probably). Jon Morrell's distressed yet massive set, Adam Silverman's dramatic lighting and Alden's massing of the chorus seemed highly promising. English National Opera has assembled a very strong team for the production with Stuart Skelton singing his first Otello, Leah Crocetto as Desdemona, veteran baritone Jonathan Summers as Iago, Allan Clayton as Cassio, Peter Van Hulle as Roderigo, Pamela Helen Stephen as Emilia and Barnaby Rea as Lodovico. Conducting his first Otello was Edward Gardner.

So far so impressive, but this is Alden-land and not the naturalistic operatic world and even working with a naturalistic setting Alden pushes the expressionist nature of the staging. The same set is used for the whole opera, dressed with stray bits of furniture at times but the final act is on a bare stage with just a single chair. Inevitably there is a lot of wall hugging, but that is to be expected in Alden-land, and the opening act is just as fervidly neurotic as the rest rather than allowing a slow build.

Stuart Skelton, Barnaby Rea, Leah Crocetto and chorus in act three of Verdi's Otello at English National Opera - photo Alastair Muir
Stuart Skelton, Barnaby Rea, Leah Crocetto and chorus
photo Alastair Muir
His treatment of the chorus also raises the level of neurosis from the start, their movements are stylised and expressionist providing not a naturalistic backdrop for the start of the drama, but a sense of a world fractured already. Alden seems to have been determined to remove all sense of a positive, happy world. In act two, the scene where Desdemona walks amongst and is greeted by the chorus, was staged as a strange ritual with just Leah Crocetto, a few children and dancers and a lot of daffodils; the chorus  resolutely off stage. Any sense of normal life is removed.

Into this fractured world is introduced Stuart Skelton's Otello. Skelton was resolutely white, and with no other sense of 'the other'. In an article in the programme Alden talks of Verdi's music for the character having little sense of otherness, and that they intended to play Otello as an assimilated Muslim. Well there was no sense of this, no sense that Otello was in some way different. This was rather reductive, making the opera be about a family crisis; it reduced Otello to just another love triangle.

Perhaps this might have worked with an experienced Otello, able to take control of the character and the production (my two greatest Otellos were highly experienced when I heard them, Jon Vickers and Charles Craig). But Skelton did everything that Alden wanted, for good or evil. He offered one of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role that I have heard in a long time. He has a very slim-line voice, quite old-fashioned in its focus. He doesn't use vibrato to big the voice up, and this shows in his control of the line, both at volume and in the quiet moments. The opening wasn't the most thrilling that I have heard, but made its mark. Where we came to appreciate Skelton was in the love duet where, like few tenors, he was able to thin his voice down and make the ending with, Leah Crocetto's Desdemona, really quiet (rather than an operatic pianissimo which is closer to mezzo-forte).

Stuart Skelton, Allan Clayton, Jonathan Summers in act three of Verdi's Otello at English National Opera - photo Alastair Muir
Stuart Skelton, Allan Clayton, Jonathan Summers
photo Alastair Muir

This continued throughout the opera, but the problem for me was that Skelton ultimately left me unmoved. Neither of the leading male roles in the opera are likeable, and Otello must get to the heart in other ways. His best scenes were those with Leah Crocetto's vibrant Desdemona. Alone of the principals, Crocetto brought a sense of Italianità to the vocal line and Skelton responded, so that their act two and act three scenes had a vibrancy and passion lacking elsewhere in the opera.

This was an expressionist production, where details were magnified for expression and Alden and Skelton had Otello going to pieces far too quickly. He opened act three, hugging an icon of the madonna, and lounging in a leather arm chair like a man who has collapsed. This might give insight into his mental processes, but it completely removed any sense of shock to the end of act three and Otello's very public collapse.

Jonathan Summers (now 67) gave an age-defying performance as Iago, taking control of the role and giving it a thrilling vibrancy. From the first moment he acted with startling intensity, and was in control for the whole of the opera. It help that his diction was superb, so that we also heard every word. His recitation of Iago's creed was simply thrilling, despite some crawling about the floor. Slightly more problematic was the bleached, bleak tone that Summers used. There was little sense of baritone Italianità and this seemed to be picked up by Skelton who matched Summers in bleak tone, which was not always a benefit to the music.

Leah Crocetto in act two of Verdi's Otello at English National Opera - photo Alastair Muir
Leah Crocetto in act two
photo Alastair Muir
I last saw Leah Crocetto in 2012 (in Rossini's Maometto II at Santa Fe), she has a rich, vibrato-laden voice and I have to confess that in act one I found her performance a little to fragile with the vocal line rather over vibrato-ed, but she made a nicely sympathetic foil to Skelton's Otello in the love duet. From act two, I came to appreciate her performance; there was a strength underlying the fragility both in terms of character and in the way her voice developed a firm core. Her solo in act two was poised, despite singing it standing on a chair, and her scenes with Skelton's Otello were thrilling. As I have said, her Italianità in the vocal line gave us a real sense of passion. She did everything Alden asked of her, and took control of the bare open stage in act four to give a really moving and powerful account of the Willow Song and Ave Maria, made all the more moving because of the sense that underneath the fragility there was a voice capable of singing bigger Verdi roles. In a cast notable for its diction, Crocetto held her own and we heard a considerable number of words (not something that always happens with soprano lines). I do hope that ENO invite her back soon.

The remaining cast were all extremely strong. Allan Clayton gave us a fine-grained and bright toned Cassio, who seemed to hit the bottle constantly throughout the opera. There was no sense of Cassio being a sensible being in this production, Clayton's Cassio seemed to go to pieces and hit the bottle from the start, but vocally he was first class. Peter Van Hulle made a stylish Roderigo and Barnaby Rea a noble Lodovico.

Pamela Helen Stephen made the small role of Emilia count, and I heard bits of the role which I have never heard properly on stage. Add to this Stephen's excellent diction, and you had a masterclass in how such minor roles ought to be played.

As I have said, the level of diction was generally excellent so it was rather a shame that what we got to hear was Tom Phillips rather unlovely translation. Practical and workaday rather than poetic, my companion found the text rather too wordy and I could have wished for something a little more expressive.

Leah Crocetto in act four of Verdi's Otello at English National Opera - photo Alastair Muir
Leah Crocetto in act four
photo Alastair Muir
Conducting his first Otello, Edward Gardner seemed to revel in the sound and thunder available in the orchestra. I think he could have been more sympathetic to his singers but the sound from the orchestra was undoubtedly thrilling and impressive. Gardner's wasn't the most loveable Otello and I did wonder whether we had rather too many debutants and that the production might have benefited from either an experienced Otello or an experienced conductor.

Alden's production had some promising moments and performances, but did not quite add up and, I have to admit, there were moments which dragged despite the best efforts of the performers. I do hope that the production does not go direct to the scrap heap, like some recent ENO productions, but look forward a revival which seeks to imbue the piece with more Mediterranean warmth and Italianità.

Read Hilary's review of Otello on this blog. 

Elsewhere on this blog:

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