Tuesday 23 September 2014

Otello Undressed at the ENO

Stuart Skelton and Leah Crocetto - Verdi's Otello - English National Opera - photo credit Alastair Muir
Stuart Skelton and Leah Crocetto
photo credit Alastair Muir
Verdi Otello; Stuart Skelton, Leah Crocetto, Jonathan Summers, dir. David Alden, cond. Edward Gardner; Opera Undressed, English National Opera at London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Sep 16 2014
Star rating: 4.0

New production of Verdi's last opera experienced at one of ENO's Opera Undressed performances

The ENO has made a dramatic success of Verdi's penultimate opera 'Otello' - directed by David Alden and conducted by Edward Gardner. Starring Stuart Skelton, Leah Crocetto, and Jonathan Summers this production focuses on the malevolence of Iago leading to the inexorable fall of Otello and the tragic death of Desdemona.

The ENO is committed to making opera accessible and in encouraging people to try out opera and find out for themselves what it is all about. A major part of this is translating all their performances into English, but most of their productions are also modern and innovative. The singing and acting are generally of such a high standard that they make the story plain without compromising the music, and there is little of the old fashioned kind of wallowing which put me off opera twenty years ago.

But there is still the problem of persuading people who are prejudiced against opera that things have moved on. High prices for seats (unless you don't mind being in the gods, having a restricted view, or standing) - even though they are comparable to London musicals - is often blamed as being off putting. Here too the ENO are trying to change perceptions.

Jonathan Summers - Verdi's Otello - English National Opera - photo credit Alastair Muir
Jonathan Summers
photo credit Alastair Muir
Alongside their secret seat scheme where you pay £20 in advance but are only allocated seats on the night (which I have done a couple of times and had excellent seats in the Dress Circle – but seats sell out fast) the ENO runs an Opera Undressed night aimed at people new to opera. For £25 you get to go to a pre-performance talk, sit in the best seats in the house, and go to an after show party... which is cheaper than a restricted view seat for 'Cats'.

On Tuesday (16th September) I attended the Opera Undressed night for 'Otello' by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) to find out if this scheme is all it's made out to be. 'Otello', completed in 1887, was Verdi's second to last opera and was based on 'The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice' by William Shakespeare written 280 years earlier (c1603). In other words the performance tonight closed a circle where a Londoner wrote about things happening in Cyprus and Venice, which was set to music by an Italian in Milan, and now performed in London.

The libretto was provided by Arrigo Boito (translated into English by Tom Phillips) who Verdi had worked with in revising 'Simon Boccanegra'. Verdi had to be dragged out of retirement and it was only with the promise that he could stop production at any time, even up to the premiere, that he agreed to go ahead. Even so this was a project that took a long time to get off the ground – initial discussions with Verdi about 'Otello' were begun in 1879 but composition did not start until five years later - taking three years, with minor tweaking throughout 1887.

In summary: evil baddie Iago persuades gullible and slightly unhinged Otello that his wife Desdemona is being unfaithful with Cassio and deserves to die... in order that he (Iago) will get Otello's job once Otello has been caught and punished.

Barnaby Read, Stuart Skelton and chorus - Verdi's Otello - English National Opera - photo credit Alastair Muir
Barnaby Read, Stuart Skelton and chorus
photo credit Alastair Muir
Stuart Skelton, (last seen in Peter Grimes which was also directed by David Alden), was marvellous as the unhinged and increasingly tortured Otello, and American Leah Crocetto, in her first ENO performance, was a beautiful, proud, and desperate Desdemona. Crocetto's 'Willow song /Ave Maria' was nicely done, making the most of the difference between her song and the 'asides', and the duet between the two lovers was tender and poignant. But it is Iago, performed here by the Australian baritone Jonathan Summers, who stole the show - Summers' Iago was a really nasty piece of work without tipping over into pantomime territory.

While there was a certain amount of wall hugging going on (especially in the final acts) and some of the cues given by the libretto were ignored, e.g. when to hold hands or kiss, plus there was the slightly bizarre moment when the dead Desdemona rolled across the stage, the production made the most of the simple set. The same space was used as both inside and out, and was atmospheric without being imposing, although it was sometimes confusing as to where exactly people were – at one point it appeared that Otello and Desdemona fell asleep in the town hall square. The actors were colour coded in 1880 costumes – grey for the Cypriots led by Montano (Charles Johnston), brown for Cassio (Allan Clayton) and his wife Emilia (Pamela Helen Stephen), black for the Venetians led by Lodovico (Barnaby Rea), and blue for Roderigo (Peter Van Hulle).

Conducted by Edward Gardner the orchestra brought the setting to life. Right from the start Verdi's dramatic use of music threw the audience into the action. In a great piece of choreography, the crashing musical storm was mimicked on stage by the chorus who were alternately thrown around by the storm - trying to save the boats and sailors, and being the sea itself – churning about the stage. Later there were tremolos of remembered thunder, brass for battle cries, and a delightful cello solo during the love duet. Shining stars were recalled by piccolo as the lovers fell asleep.

Iago's plotting was helped along by pizzicato strings and his solo about atheism was accompanied by hellish buzzing. Similarly Otello's jealousy was mirrored by a musical slippery snake and the cor anglais tenderly cocooned Desdemona's desperation.

After its premiere 'Otello' reportedly got 20 curtain calls. Here in London things were more practical with only the leads coming on for applause with the conductor – the chorus had (presumably) already left as the final act only uses the principal players.

At the end of the interesting pre-performance talk Christopher Cook from the BBC described 'Othello' as "the grandest of grand operas" and assistant director Ian Rutherford said that it was "Perfection". It was certainly a great performance which I thoroughly enjoyed. I especially enjoyed the gin and tonic tasting session at the after performance party provided by the undressed event sponsors. For someone new to opera (or indeed someone well versed in opera but needing a treat) Opera Undressed is a perfect little scheme that is well worth a try.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

Robert Hugill's review of Otello will appear later this week as one of our Second View articles.
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