By David Shengold
NEW YORK – At the Metropolitan Opera season premiere of Otello Dec. 14, the big news – aside, of course, from Verdi’s towering score and Boito’s masterful libretto – was the company debut of Gustavo Dudamel. That the charismatic Venezuelan conductor would make news was foreordained: He – and his floppy hair – are icons of the current classical scene, fortunately not without reason. Dudamel has been venturing onto operatic turf (not to mention the Verdi Requiem) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which he is music director. In July he led Otello in concert format at the Hollywood Bowl with Russell Thomas, George Gagnidze, and Julianna Di Giacomo (the listed “cover” for Desdemona in this Met run, with a scheduled performance on Dec. 28).
A huge ovation confirmed Dudamel’s popularity and recognition factor as he mounted the podium. Happily, he proved ready for the assignment, offering an energetic, exciting reading – not in any sense a revelation or a personal statement about the score, but a highly capable job. He capitalized on the strength of an orchestra long steeped in this work – under Levine, Bychkov, and Gergiev in this millennium alone – and most recently put through its rigors by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Adam Fischer.
At times one felt the conductor’s tendency to propulsiveness left the music – though not the singers – without a proper chance to “breathe.” Some pauses would have helped reinforce the dramatic structure, already under threat from the constant (and far from silent) comings and goings of Es Devlin’s largely pointless, confusing plexiglass and metal rolling set units, a seeming invasion of Cyprus by IKEA. But the storm scene, a real test for conductors, emerged cogently, and the coordination with the chorus – in strong form, despite the women’s less-than-fresh group timbre – came off successfully. (The same cannot be said of the choral blocking, as uninspired and inept as it was at the September 2015 opening of Bartlett Sher’s vague, unrooted staging.) Overall, on this evidence, Dudamel is a valid theatrical conductor and deserves further Met opportunities.
Pre-opening drama struck at the Met dress rehearsal, when Di Giacomo replaced Sonya Yoncheva – the finest singer in the production’s initial run – and American tenor Carl Tanner stepped in for the ailing announced Otello, Stuart Skelton. Speculation ran high before the season premiere as to who would perform. In the event, Skelton canceled the day before and Tanner sang his first Met Otello, but Yoncheva, despite some evidence of continued vocal issues, went on as scheduled.
Tanner, the burly and burly-voiced Virginian, has years of New York City Opera and international credits behind him. He has sung Radamès, Calaf, Dick Johnson, Turridu, and Canio for the Met, often as a cover performer; his last appearance was in a May 2015 Pagliacci. His capable, judiciously executed performance was not a role debut as Otello, which he has sung in Barcelona, Moscow, and Savonlinna. Like Heldentenor Skelton’s, his is not a timbre of Italianate “wine and sunshine,” but this role doesn’t call for that very often. What Tanner lacked in vocal color palette he provided in more-than-adequate volume and production, clarity of musical detail (including some transpositions up in Act Four’s depths), and stamina. The words emerged clearly, though only later in the evening taking on actual emotional shading.
Sher’s concept of the character, lacking for historically understandable reasons darkening make-up, puts nothing in its place to posit Otello’s reactions as a societal outsider; none of the character’s entrances are staged to particularly enhance his stature as a tragic hero, and his plain black last-act costume evoked a stagehand. It would take a huge personality like Jon Vickers or James McCracken to make something dramatically vivid in this staging. Jumping into such a high-profile assignment is a serious challenge. Tanner didn’t and won’t rewrite the history of the role, but he did a fine professional job and outsang some tenors deployed at this address as “first cast.”
Yoncheva’s tonal refulgence – and evocation, in her veiled-mid voice, of Maria Callas – gave considerable pleasure as soon as the Love Duet began. But throughout the first two acts, she sounded hard and pressed at high A and above, as in last spring’s Luisa Miller. The tension lessened in the evening’s second half, save for the concertato’s utmost peaks. But her stage commitment and basic lovely sound counted for much, and she fared memorably in her Willow Song/Ave Maria scena. (Dudamel erred here in not bringing in the double basses right away, thus enabling a mood-destroying ovation.) Željko Lučić, the Met’s default Verdi baritone, lacks the verbal incisiveness Iago needs but marked considerable improvement on his performances when the show was new, staying on pitch throughout and supplying welcome dynamic shading.
Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov has appeared before as Cassio – Venetian aristocrat, lifetime friend of Desdemona, and Otello’s imagined rival – both in the current production and its predecessor. He has the slim, confident look for the part and acted it uncommonly well, with telling detail. Vocally, the role sometimes gets awarded to a Mozartean lyric tenor; Dolgov, a frequent Pinkerton in Butterfly, has a cutting edge in his sound that helped keep Cassio’s contributions audible in ensembles but sometimes came at the expense of legato phrasing. Overall, it was a positive performance.
Along with Lučić’s Iago, a few supporting parts retained the casting of the 2015 premiere. Like Desdemona, for whom she is lady-in-waiting, Emilia makes an unbidden and improbable first appearance during the opera’s initial storm scene. Verdi and Boito delay her musical appearance until Act Two. Beyond being smacked in the face by Iago, Jennifer Johnson Cano (another veteran of Dudamel’s Hollywood Bowl performance) made little impression in this act’s superb quartet, not especially gracefully handled by the conductor; but her fine instrument made its mark (as it must do) in Act Three’s extended concertato and Emilia’s sudden promotion to principal status in the final colloquy with Otello. Baritone Jeff Mattsey and tenor Chad Shelton, both with years of leading role experience in regional (and in Shelton’s case, international) contexts, offered substantive work dramatically and vocally as Montano and Roderigo.
James Morris, whose Met debut as Aida’s King took place in January 1971 and who has sung major and starring roles at the company ever since, first appeared as the Venetian emissary Lodovico in December 1972 in the Zeffirelli production opposite McCracken, Teresa Żylis-Gara, and Sherrill Milnes – a time of different Verdian standards. Morris’ contribution 46 years later was generally sonorous and positive, steadier and fuller of tone than some of his work in recent seasons. At the other end of the experience continuum, Lindemann Young Artist member Kidon Choi sang strongly in the brief duties of Act Three’s baritone Herald.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, and many other venues, and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Symphony, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.