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Otello (London Coliseum)

The Lion of Venice fails to roar as English National Opera's new season opens

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Given the unequivocal success of its staging of Britten's Peter Grimes it made sense, on paper at least, for the ENO management to want to reunite director David Alden, tenor Stuart Skelton and music director Edward Gardner to see if some of that theatrical magic would rub off on Verdi's Otello. Unfortunately lightning doesn't always strike twice in the operatic firmament, and even though there were merits to their latest endeavour, one couldn't help but feel bitterly disappointed at the outcome.

Leah Crocetto (Desdemona) & Stuart Skelton (Otello)
©ALASTAIR MUIR

Alden is one of the most innovative and probing directors around, and the fact that he was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his ENO debut is testament in itself to his continuous ability to create original and innovative stagings, yet here it seemed as though he either didn't have much interest in the opera, or didn't have much to say about it. Given his epoch-making staging of A Masked Ball here in the late ‘80s, we know that Verdi brings the best out in him, but Verdi and Boito's masterpiece failed to ignite his imagination so we were left with a staging that at times veered between the traditional and the just plain silly.

Jon Morrell's distressed designs thrust the action forward to the mid 1920s with little gain. One set, with permutations, sufficed for all four acts. This worked reasonably well for the first three, where inside and outdoors were reversed (this was achieved through Adam Silverman's ingenious lighting plot) but by the time we reached the final act, poor Desdemona appeared to be sleeping rough in the street on a pile of sheets and blankets. It just didn't gel. Similarly the relationships between the three protagonists; Iago, Otello and Desdemona seemed only sketched in. If you portray Iago as a stock pantomime villain, Otello as a would-be Grimes-as-General, and Desdemona as a cipher about 80% of Verdi and Boito's work goes for nought.

'The augmented ENO Chorus rattled the rafters'

Stuart Skelton is one of the world's leading heldentenors and is peerless as Siegmund and Parsifal and he certainly had a decent stab at this, the most challenging role in the Italian repertoire but at the moment its heroism and pathos eludes him. True, he has the vocal heft for Otello's many outbursts but the quieter, reflective passages are currently not in his vocal armoury. He also didn't appear totally at ease with the character on stage and having Alden make him throw a chair across the stage (always a sign of clutching at straws) not once, but twice, simply smacked of laziness on the director's part.

Making her UK debut American soprano Leah Crocetto displayed a voice of uncommon warmth, and one containing more mettle than one is used to in the role of Desdemona. Her singing of the Willow Song and Ave Maria was poised and poignant but like Skelton, she moved around the stage with caution. Although a late replacement for Brian Mulligan, Jonathan Summers snarled and barked his way through the role of Iago. Above the stave the voice is now in tatters and he resorted to parlando and Sprechstimme to get through the evening. Of Verdian line and colour there was not a trace.

Allan Clayton was a clarion-sounding Cassio, whilst there was solid support from Pamela Helen Stephen as Emilia and Barnaby Rae as a sonorous Lodovico.

The augmented ENO Chorus rattled the rafters with a full-blooded onslaught in the opening chorus and went on to make an heroic contribution throughout the rest of the evening. Alden directed them superbly. In the pit Gardner led an enthusiastic performance, teetering on the brash at times but it was often thrilling, never dull and the playing of the ENO Orchestra was beyond reproach.