After David McVicar’s bitterly disappointing staging of Les Troyens, and a season that’s hardly been one of the most memorable for star quality, The Royal Opera’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 25 year old staging of Verdi’s Otello comes as a bolt out of the blue as not only does it deliver possibly the most thrilling three hours I’ve spent in Covent Garden this year, but it’s as fine a performance of this superb opera as you’re likely to encounter these days.
I happened to be present at the first night of this staging when it was new in January 1987 and that performance, conducted by Carlos Kleiber with Placido Domingo in the title role and Katia Ricciarelli as Desdemona, has rightly entered the operatic annals as being one of the finest performances of the twentieth century - and rightly so. Any subsequent outings have a lot to live up to, and whilst the current Royal Opera revival fails to erase memories of that magical night a quarter of a century ago, it comes pretty damn close.
Hero of the evening is conductor Antonio Pappano. It’s hard to believe that the curtain came down on the final performance of Les Troyens the previous evening as the energy, drive and commitment of all involved in the first night of Otello is of Herculean proportions. From the shattering opening which ushers in the storm, to the quiet, hushed close of the opera, Pappano charts an unerring musical course that brings out all the drama, and colour of Verdi’s orchestral writing to the full. The orchestra rewards him with fiery playing that is constantly alert to the dramatic requirements of the piece. Given that it’s been a long season and they were performing over five hours of Berlioz the previous evening, their thrilling contribution is all the more amazing.
The title role is one of the, if not the, most arduous in the Italian repertoire yet the young Latvian tenor Alexsandrs Antonenko meets the many challenges head on and delivers a performance that is vocally reminiscent of the young Domingo. Secure throughout the entire range, he is equally at home at full throttle above the stave as he is in the quieter more insular passages. Dramatically he only comes into his own in the final two acts and his descent into madness is, for the time being, too calculated but nevertheless is moving in the opera’s final denouement.
Next to such a towering performance, Lucio Gallo has his work cut out to stamp his authority on the character of Iago. Sometimes wayward of pitch he appears more comfortable when whispering his malicious thoughts, than in the big, set pieces.
All the secondary roles are well cast, with Antonio Poli an unusually vivid Cassio and Brindley Sherratt a gravely sonorous Lodovico.
The evening however belongs to Anja Harteros, who melts all hearts as Desdemona. There can be no doubt that she is the finest lyric-spinto soprano of her generation and she consistently produces the most thrilling Verdi singing to be heard at Covent Garden since her last appearances here as Amelia Grimaldi four years ago. Her technique is rock solid and she is capable of floating superb pianissimos, yet has enough vocal heft to ride the orchestra and chorus in the great third act ensemble. The variety of tone with which she colours the voice is remarkable – her ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’ are heart-wrenching, and she cuts a totally believable character on stage. Her appearances next year in Don Carlos with Jonas Kaufmann promise to be unmissable.