By James Paulk
NEW YORK — Ignoring for a moment the distractions having to do with the arrival of a major new production by Tony winner Bartlett Sher, the much-discussed decision to abandon the use of blackface makeup for the Moor, or the glamourous pageantry of opening night, the first performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Otello was, for the most part, a triumph of great singing by distinctive voices and accomplished conducting from Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece is truly a conductor’s opera, its success always hostage to the podium. Longtime Met fans will recall the performances of the immortal Carlos Kleiber in the late ’80s and early ’90s that were marked by an electrifying yet utterly controlled reading of the score. Nézet-Séguin’s approach isn’t at all the same as Kleiber’s. The latter was more subtle and even more accurate; he demanded, and got, extra rehearsal time, and he limited his repertoire to a handful of works, so comparisons are unfair.
Yet I was constantly reminded of Kleiber because, more so than any Otello I’ve heard since Kleiber’s, including several at the Met, Nézet-Séguin managed the discipline to produce a transparent, polished, nuanced sound. His opening storm had just the right energy as the tempi accelerated and decelerated swiftly, with plenty of dynamic punch. Iago’s “Credo” arrived with emotional torrents from the pit, and Desdemona’s prayers were accompanied by sweetly articulated sounds.
Indeed, the singers all seemed to sound better simply because of this profoundly intelligent support. Not surprisingly, the Met orchestra responded like no other opera orchestra in America, perhaps the world. Nézet-Séguin, who juggles major posts in Philadelphia, Montreal, and Rotterdam, has emerged as one of the great opera conductors of our era.
In geopolitical terms, Eastern Europe is perhaps not ascendant just now. But this was a stage dominated by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona, and Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Iago.
Antonenko’s richly textured, dark-tinged sound has invited comparisons with Jon Vickers. It’s true that Antonenko lacks both the kind of power needed to dominate as Otello in this cavernous room and the subtlety for the gentler passages. And his acting is stiff. Yet there is something riveting about his voice, and he does have considerable stage presence. Otellos don’t grow on trees, and Antonenko might be the best one on the planet at the moment.
For the first time, the Met abandoned the use of blackface make-up for Otello. This creates minor conflicts with the libretto, and Otello’s role as a Moor outsider is essential to understanding his character. But just as we’re well beyond the era of color-conscious casting, the opera audience is ready to ignore Otello’s make-up. It really shouldn’t be a big issue and wasn’t here.
Amazingly, this was Yoncheva’s first performance anywhere as Desdemona. She rewarded the Met’s confidence with a mesmerizing performance, her large, warm, tremulous voice at times soaring, then longing, always gorgeous — different from anyone else in this role, a valuable trait in this world of voices that sound so similar.
Lučić, a crowd favorite, offered a sympathetic, suave Iago instead of the barbaric figure that often emerges. Sometimes this worked against him, his sweet voice suggesting a man incapable of such villainy. The voice was sumptuous, but the dramatic portrayal was often unconvincing, perhaps due to the lack of solid direction. Similarly, the Cassio of Greek tenor Dimitri Pittas was vocally splendid, but not always persuasive. Chad Shelton was satisfying as Roderigo, and Jennifer Johnson Cano was a worthy Emilia.
Sher is, of course, a Broadway legend, and this is his sixth new production at the Met. There is much to admire in his Otello, not least of which is the sensuous beauty he conjures on the stage for every scene. Set designer Esmeralda Devlin’s elegant translucent boxes came and went, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) reflecting the lighting designs of Donald Holder. Projections ranged from a raging sea in front of cast and chorus to a sky at twilight for the final act. Catherine Zuber’s stylized costumes put the women in Victorian gowns and the men in military uniforms. A bed arrived when Iago first planted the seed of jealousy in Otello, then returned for the final act.
As is often the case at the Met, this production tried to straddle the line between the extravagant realism of the past few decades (think Zeffirelli) and the complex, challenging stage metaphors that are the rage of Europe. This might not be a formula for great art, but abstract beauty isn’t such a bad thing, and the Met seems especially risk-averse these days.
In truth, the problem with Sher’s production isn’t with sets or costumes. Rather, there seems an almost universal failure to move and act in ways that are persuasive. Otello isn’t a dance, but it needs singers who can look at each other appropriately and use their bodies to bring the drama to life. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Sher and his team were more focused on how the performances would look on the television screen, with close-ups of faces and other details invisible to the live audience. Indeed, the Met’s HD audience is now far larger than that in the theater over the entire run of a production, and the Times Square simulcast also carried this performance to an audience of thousands.
But in opera, the audience in the house is more than a historic relic. Nor is it comparable to the studio audience for a television show. The broadcast audience will inevitably suffer if the live audience, with its passion and enthusiasm, isn’t fully engaged.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic who has written regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.