The Lion of Venice Roars and Sputters: The Raging Storms of Verdi’s ‘Otello’

Verdi’s ‘Otello’ at the Met Opera: The Act I Brindisi with Alexey Dolgov & Zeljko Lucic (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The Opera That Almost Wasn’t

Leave it to Arrigo Boito to screw up a nearly ideal situation. He and Verdi, the dean of Italian opera composers, had come together to form a cautious if mutually convenient artistic collaboration: Boito, the man of letters, with Verdi, the purveyor of memorable stage works. But an incident occurred in early 1884 that dampened their budding partnership.

Verdi had asked Boito for changes to his libretto to the yet to be completed Otello. He had started work on Act I and was looking forward to sketching out the rest, when reports reached him that Boito, in Naples supervising a production of the revised Mefistofele, had mouthed off to a newspaper reporter that “although he had originally written the libretto of Otello almost against his will, he was sorry, now that it was finished, that he could not compose [the opera] himself.”

That did it! Verdi bristled as he read the account. But instead of firing off a missive to Boito directly, the self-proclaimed “Bear of Busseto,” whose irritability was as renowned as his operatic output, decided to write Boito’s close friend, the conductor and composer Franco Faccio, that he, Verdi, would be glad to return Boito’s manuscript “without any kind of rancor.”

In Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s definitive biography of Verdi, she quoted the outraged composer, adding that, as the “owner of the libretto,” he would only be too glad to “offer it as a gift ‘in the hope of contributing something to the Art we all love.’” Faccio, upon receipt of Verdi’s letter (and with the greatest of tact and diplomacy), wrote back trying to apply cold towels to a potentially heated situation.

Oblivious of what had occurred between Faccio and Verdi, Boito, for his part, did next to nothing to calm the waters, even after reading the reporter’s account of his pronouncement in a local journal. His first thought was to fire back at the newspaper, but had a change of heart while he contemplated asking Verdi’s permission before responding. When he met up with Verdi and his wife Giuseppina in Genoa, Boito got cold feet and neglected to discuss the matter.

Only later, when he ran into Faccio in Turin, did his friend inform him of Verdi’s reaction to what Boito had allegedly stated, and of Verdi’s offer to return the Otello libretto back to him. Boito was shaken and immediately sent a letter to Verdi claiming he was “misquoted by the reporter and that he could not accept Verdi’s offer to return the libretto.” It was here that the man of letters proved his worth by accepting blame for the situation and pleading his case to Verdi not to abandon the “Chocolate Project,” their code name for Otello.

Arrigo Boito (l.) alongside Giuseppe Verdi in publisher Giulio Ricordi’s garden (Photo: Achille Ferrario, 1892)

All this took place between the end of March and into late April 1884. It took most of the spring and into the early fall — and well into 1885 and afterwards — before Verdi, who met and spoke to Boito on numerous occasions, would commit himself to resuming work on what would be his penultimate masterpiece. For the duration of their time together, which included the as yet to be imagined comic opera Falstaff (1893), he and Boito would treat each other cordially and with respect.

Incidentally, it was Boito’s brother, the architect Camillo Boito, who helped create the neo-Gothic-styled Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, the famous rest home for retired and/or destitute artists, singers, and musicians that Verdi had founded and allocated the funds for circa 1896.

An Island of Troubles

The Bartlett Sher production of Verdi’s Otello, with text by Boito adapted from Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, was the featured work on the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast of January 5, 2019. With sets by Es Devlin (the kind that slide in-and-out and snap into place like a giant erector set), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (prevailingly black, white, purple, and red), lighting designs by Donald Holder, and projection designs by Luke Halls (one critic felt they resembled a large, economy-sized screen saver), this revival was buoyed by the radio debut of that Venezuelan “Wonder Boy,” conductor Gustavo Dudamel, leading the Met Opera Orchestra.

Both the play and the opera take place on the island of Cypress, then under the rule of the powerful city-state of Venice. Librettist Boito dropped Shakespeare’s first act, which played out in lovely Venezia, as well as did away with several minor characters (Desdemona’s father, Cassio’s mistress), in favor of setting the action in what basically amounts to a 24-hour cycle of events.

Otello (Stuart Skelton) hears about Iago’s ‘Dream’ (Zeljko Lucic) in Verdi’s ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As in Shakespeare, the plot revolves around a forced “misunderstanding.” Bitter at being passed over for promotion in favor of Lieutenant Cassio, Iago plots to get even with his general, Otello. His plan is to trick Otello into believing his beautiful wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with the handsome young Cassio. Besides possessing a jealous nature, Otello suffers from self-esteem issues in that he, a black man in service to the Venetian Council and a former slave, must constantly reinforce his position to those under his command, Iago among them. Boito streamlined the plot so that the story’s arc occurs early on in Act II.

That arc, by way of a fateful handkerchief, ignites the flame of distrust that leads to Otello’s brutal strangling of the innocent Desdemona. And who is the mischief-maker responsible for duping the head man? Why, Iago, of course! Verdi was so captivated by this malevolent creature that he was tempted to call his opera Iago, but thought the better of it.

Australian-born Stuart Skelton, a most memorable Tristan, appeared in the titular name part (see the following link to my review of his performance in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/09/17/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-tristan-the-flying-dutchman-and-the-love-of-a-good-woman-conclusion/). Unfortunately for Skelton, he ran into vocal trouble from the start with the Moor’s strenuous entrance air, “Esultate!” A mere twelve bars of music, most of it unaccompanied and leaving the singer exposed, can make or break an artist. Though no announcement was forthcoming of his indisposition, we learned later that Skelton had been suffering the effects of a nasty flu bug that was going around town.

Otello (Stuart Skelton, l.) being manipulated by Iago (Zeljko Lucic) in Act II of ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard)

He missed the first performance on December 14 (his substitute was a rugged native-Virginian named Carl Tanner, who made his local debut at North Carolina Opera last year in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila). Apparently, Verdi’s torture test for tenors got the better of Skelton at that point, but he gamely went on with the show. Time for Serbian baritone Željko Lučić’s subtly suggestive Iago to save the day! Indeed, it was a pleasure to hear his understated vocalism as “his Moorship’s ancient.” Iago is far from your average mustache-twirling scoundrel. He’s more of a low-key plotter and full-time deceiver, and Lučić played him that way.

Others in the cast included Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva who repeated her heartfelt Desdemona, and Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, a known quantity at the Met in roles ranging from Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. He proved a lyrically adept Cassio. Jeff Mattsey sang the part of Montano, with mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano as Desdemona’s maid Emilia, Kidon Choi as the Herald, and veteran James Morris as Lodovico. What was left of Roderigo’s participation, in Boito’s abridged version, was nicely vocalized by tenor Chad Shelton (no relation).

The Met Chorus, under chorus master Donald Palumbo’s steady direction, contributed greatly to the opening storm sequence, one of opera’s most spectacular scenarios; along with taking part in Iago’s lusty drinking song (a masterpiece of dramatic contextualization), as well as their full-throated outpourings in the concertato that closes Act III.

Iago’s Brindisi, the drinking song mentioned above, was incisively paced under Maestro Dudamel’s baton, and thoroughly insinuating in Lučić’s flawlessly accented Italian. Dolgov was properly forthright and passionate, too, with solid excursions into his role’s nether regions. Lučić appeared to enjoy the snakelike twisting and turning that Verdi had allotted the singer. The downward thrusts and purposely meandering theme (both simultaneously jovial and serpentine), in addition to the sliding rhythms, were perfectly in sync with the drama. And the baritone’s Gobbi-esque interjections were thoroughly apropos of the situation.

Not surprisingly, Dudamel had a field day in the pit, keeping up a furious pace from the first downbeat to the last. The forward momentum rarely let up, which lent the entire work a feeling of inevitably, of forces beyond anyone’s control. A good example was the drunken fight scene between Cassio and Montano: every note was clearly and audibly articulated. As a result, the maestro was cheered at his every appearance, and deservedly so. He might have tried to relax the tempo in spots or lingered over certain passages — near the end of Act III, for instance, before Iago’s pronouncement of “Ecco il Leone!” (“Here lies the Lion!”). But for the most part, his way with the score smacked of intense knowledge and familiarity with its orchestral requirements.

Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel

Mr. Skelton, after his momentary lapse, re-emerged from the doldrums miraculously “cured” (for the time being) of whatever ailment he experienced at the outset. He was better at Otello’s declamatory passages than the Moor’s clarion call of victory against the Turks. He shined in the few lyrical moments allotted the general, but his Italian needs work. That’s for future assignments in this repertoire. He’s still so veddy British, or Aussie-influenced in his case. That’s not to say that foreigners can’t make great Otellos. I remember the likes of Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, or Torsten Ralf and other Golden Age artists: despite their varied backgrounds, they proved their mettle in this part by dint of superior vocalism.

If Lučić had skillfully channeled the ghost of Tito Gobbi in the previous segment (without actually incorporating that artist’s vocal mannerisms), then Skelton must have allied with past Met Opera luminaries as Otello, among them the barrel-chested James McCracken and the equally well-proportioned Richard Cassilly (whom Skelton resembled vocally). Skelton’s voice is a large one — ideal for the part of the Moorish general. Still, I’m certain he was more comfortable in Wagner than in Verdi, as my hunch was later proven.

Love is All Around

In the exquisite Act I love duet with Sonya Yoncheva, Skelton settled down somewhat. He took the elegant line, “Se dopo l’ira immensa. Vien, quest’immenso amor,” in one breath as written, and seemed at home in the opera’s poetic phrases. Ms. Yoncheva, herself recovering from a cold that nearly sidelined her on opening night, properly anchored their scene with long, sustained passage work — commendable, despite a persistent wobble in her voice’s middle register. Comparisons to Maria Callas were inevitable, and most reviewers mentioned this remarkable similarity in timbre, mostly toward the midrange. To these ears, she sounded more like Anna Netrebko.

The love theme that Verdi provided for this tranquil sequence, the so-called “Kiss” motif, shimmered and shook in the strings, thanks to the orchestra’s concert master. A long sustained note on violins, with the harp plucking away at the curtain (or lighting effects, in this production), took one’s breath away. The act closed on this rare moment of intimacy between husband and wife — the calm before the inevitable storm. This was Verdi’s only completely tranquil tenor-soprano love pairing from among his many works, an impressive achievement for a composer with a long and illustrious pedigree in the theater.

Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva) embraces her husband, the Moor Otello (Stuart Skelton) (Photo: Ken Howard)

On the downside, our Otello struggled with his top notes on the phrase, “Venere splende!” at the conclusion of the duet. With Skelton still under the weather, the applause he garnered for his brave show of stamina was the audience’s sign of forbearance for his plight. Clearly, this was going to be long afternoon at the opera.

On to Act II and the crux of the drama! Again, the sinister orchestral introduction predominated in the lower woodwinds and bass pedal notes. Lučić spun his perfidious web of intrigue around the unsuspecting Cassio, as suited Boito’s masterly configuration of the text and the composer’s supple scoring.

We were treated to a powerful rendering of Iago’s Credo (“Credo in un dio crudel” – “I believe in a cruel god”), one of the undisputed pillars of the baritone repertoire. Lučić sang the number a tad under pitch (a continuing problem with this artist), but his forcefully projected delivery compensated for any shortcomings. The orchestration is thick with brass punctuations, and can drown out a singer if one is not careful. However, Lučić penetrated the racket (not as easy to do in actual performance) with head held high. Vocally, he exuded evil and displayed a potent lower register, while the orchestra under Dudamel’s guidance echoed his diabolical pronouncements beat for beat — kudos to the maestro for keeping things firmly under control.

The next scene, the one in which Iago plants the seed of deception in Otello’s mixed-up mind, the singer’s artful manipulation of the text was more overt, with Lučić downplaying the malice in order to keep up appearances as Otello’s right-hand man. As for Skelton, he was again stretched to the limit by the tortuous tessitura, a punishing check on the singer’s ability to navigate the raging storms in the Moor’s soul.

Let Loose the Green-Eyed Monster

One of the chief reasons for Otello’s mania and obsessively jealous streak went missing from Sher’s production: and that is, the fact that Otello is a black-African. The Met, bless their hearts, had bowed to political correctness where, frankly speaking, none was required. Shakespeare and Verdi, along with Boito, were specific in their intent and kept to the basic premise, which, as anyone who’s studied English literature and Italian operatic practice will tell you, blames Otello’s distrust of his younger-aged bride on his ethnic background; and the fact that he had been enslaved as a youth, and escaped the horrors of such an experience (not unscathed), are essential and crucial components of his makeup (no pun intended).

The role, then, of the upstanding military man, presented here sans blackface, is neutered by this avoidance of the character’s basic trait. Worst of all, director Sher offered no substitute for this exclusion, thus rendering Otello’s maddeningly spite-filled rages and convulsive temper tantrums fitful and mild, and weakened by this omission. With that said and the air cleared on the matter, we fear that Skelton’s trips to Cyprus will be few and far between. A pity, since by all reports he made a splendid figure in uniform.

Otello’s initial confrontation with the clueless Desdemona takes place in their brief Act II exchange and in the subsequent quartet, where Iago purloins Desdemona’s handkerchief from her maid Emilia, who is also his wife.

On a side note, another of the those traits that both Verdi and Boito regrettably were unable to keep in the transition from the Elizabethan stage to Italian opera was Desdemona’s wit. Shakespeare wisely gave his heroines the intelligence and wherewithal to express their insight at key points in his plays. In Otello, so much of the character’s intellect, along with her deceptive misleading of her father regarding her relationship to the Moor, is absent from the opera. Many lines and character nuances had to go by the wayside in condensing the play into a viable operatic libretto, this being one of them.

Desdemona (Yoncheva) pleads her case to her husband, the general Otello (Skelton) (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

Nevertheless, the quartet once again exposed Skelton’s failure to hold the line in his part’s highest registers. The lower passages were fine, however he swallowed one of the high notes (one reviewer claimed he cracked on the high A’s). He wasn’t alone in the wayward vocal department: Yoncheva wobbled mightily on her highest and softest approaches, which in her character’s case fit the situation to a “T.” Otello’s martial-like farewell to arms, “Ora e per sempre addio,” whizzed by in a flash, with Skelton buckling under the strain of reaching and holding onto that high B at “è questo il fin!” (“This is the end!”).

By comparison, some past exemplars of this scene, including Canadian Jon Vickers (a fine Otello on the stage and on records), used the difficulty of sustaining that note to their advantage by conveying the character’s deteriorating mental state. Others, such as Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Mario Del Monaco (one the modern era’s best), commandingly held the note for all it was worth. While still others, i.e., Ramón Vinay, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura among them, were triumphant in reaching the heights, but preferred to husband their resources (a wise move). Either way can work, as long as there is some connection to the plot.

Fortunately, Lučić stayed with Skelton all the way, lending strong support. The baritone took Iago to his lowest level by poisoning the general’s mind with vile thoughts of Cassio seducing his wife — another of Verdi’s most illuminating instances in “Era la notte, Cassio dormia” (“The other night, Cassio was sleeping”). This fabulous, high-lying piece comes off better when delivered softly (Verdi marked it sotto voce or “under the voice”). How many present-day artists can do that? It takes an exceptionally good actor to keep up the pretense to the end. He must convince the gullible Moor that his angelic spouse is, in fact, a whore.

The act ended with Verdi’s pièce de résistance: that high-powered vengeance duet, “Si, pel ciel!” (“Yes, by heaven!”), a rousing and thoroughly bombastic curtain-closer by any definition. Skelton extended himself far beyond his comfort zone, and those sustained high B’s can be punishing for any performer. On the radio, the fire and brimstone was absent, although in the theater this scene can be a surefire hit.

With the coming of Act III, the passions and conflicts between male and female protagonists came to a boil. Dudamel kept the lower brass, which had sounded out of sorts in the later Das Rheingold broadcast, in check and under tight control, with nary a sour note. Unlike James Levine, who slackened the pace somewhat at the concertato, Dudamel kept things moving. The chorus, too, provided firm support, in spite of some stray sounds. Unfortunately, as in the outer acts, Skelton managed only to squeak out a high B at the climax of “Dio, mi potevi scagliar” (“God, you could have punished me with all manner of torture”), Otello’s pitiable and self-lacerating monologue and the only piece reminiscent of an actual aria for lead tenor.

Desdemona (Yoncheva) alone in her bedroom in Act IV of ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Act IV couldn’t have come any sooner, permitting Skelton a brief respite from his labors. Yoncheva and Johnson Cano reveled in the quieter scena for Desdemona and her maid, mimicking the plaintive “Willow Song” from Shakespeare in Verdi’s gorgeous rendition. The tranquil “Ave Maria,” which listeners will notice bears striking similarities to Elisabeth de Valois’ last act aria from Don Carlo, gave Desdemona her only peaceful moments outside of the Act I love duet. Her bed is shaped like a funeral bier, an analogy (I should think) to Juliet Capulet’s end in the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet and far from a valid comparison. But, hey, it’s Shakespeare!

Having husbanded his resources, Stuart Skelton finished stronger than when he first started. The Moorish general Otello regained a measure of his nobility in the famous death scene, “Niun mi tema” (“Let no one fear me”), where he kisses Desdemona three times before killing himself, with the poignant “Kiss” motif returning as the final seal of approval.

Ah, yes, not a banner day at the Met. But for fans of Verdi’s greatest theatrical creation, there will be better days for the Moor and his minions. Of that we are certain.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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