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Otello’s Thick Beige Coat

06/22/2024 -  & June 30, July 4, 7, 10, 12, 2024
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Alfred Kim (Otello), Nino Machaidze (Desdemona), Ian MacNeil (Iago), Michael Porter (Cassio), Jonathan Abernethy (Roderigo), Kihwan Sim (Lodovico), Claudia Mahnke (Emilia), Magnús Baldvinsson (Montano), Seungwon Choi (A Herald)
Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Tilman Michael (chorus master), Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester, Sesto Quatrini (conductor)
Johannes Erath (stage director), Caterina Panti Liberovici (revival director), Dirk Becker (sets), Silke Willrett (costumes), Joachim Klein (lighting), Norbert Abels (dramaturgy)

N. Machaidze, A. Kim (© Barbara Aumüller)

Grand voices with mediocre stagings are vastly more preferable than the reverse. When the voices of the three protagonists are as impressive as they were in this production, one can pretend to have heard a wonderful performance and simply forget the visual pollution. Yet, Johannes Erath’s staging was so uninspired and hideous that it may take more than one production of Verdi’s Otello to erase this unmitigated disaster from my mind.

The production opened to a man wearing a thick beige coat in military fatigues among hordes of empty boots. A crowd of people in uniform assemble and try on the boots. As the thundering opening music begins, a man wearing a similar thick beige coat emerges through the crowd, crushing the first man as he utters his opening words: “Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar. Nostra e del ciel è gloria. Dopo l’armi lo vinse l’uragono.” Subsequent events in the performance confirm that the thick beige coat symbolizes power.

There’s a huge discrepancy between the stentorian tenor’s opening line and Verdi’s triumphant music and the moronic crowd scene onstage. Granted, Otello’s entrance into the Cypriot port amid a raging storm is difficult and costly to mount, but the onstage buffoonery befit an amateur production.

Once Otello’s triumph is ascertained, the crowd, including Desdemona and Emilia, remove their fatigues to reveal the ugliest clothing imaginable, the various colours of Easter eggs, a disparaging reference to the regard of West Europeans toward the sartorial taste of the Greeks and southeastern Europeans.

The crowd dwindles while Otello and Desdemona sing their sensual duet “Già nella notte densa” alone on a vast stage that resembles an empty battlefield. The setup contradicts the libretto, as the Mediterranean Sea (and not Cyprus itself) was the site wherein Otello defeated the Turks. Obviously, director Johannes Erath has transposed the action somewhere else, which remained a mystery until the opera’s conclusion.

Prying eyes, those of Emilia, Iago and Cassio, observe the loving couple embracing as they conclude their duet, lying on the ground, sleeping al fresco. Though Otello and Desdemona were recently wed and Otello had been absent for some time, there wasn’t much erotic energy between them, a detail more astute directors would emphasize.

The desolate terrain conjured a desert, possibly on the Eritrean coast, Somalia or Libya, arid territories once occupied by the Italians. At the opening of Act II, Desdemona is served a demi‑tasse of coffee, espresso or Turkish coffee, while she reads Il corriere della sera, Milan’s daily newspaper, which has the headline “Cassio non è più capitano.” Had stage director Johannes Erath’s setting been a territory occupied by the Republic of Venice (AD 697‑1797), as Boito’s libretto stipulates, it would have been the daily Il gazzettino and not the Milanese daily. While the location may well have been Tripolitana or Cyrenaica (present day Libya) that Italy occupied in 1911 following the Italo-Turkish War, what interest the changed location adds is anyone’s guess.

On the positive side, the cast could not have been better. The three lead singers were first‑rate. Most outstanding was South Korean tenor Alfred Kim, blessed with the demanding vocal prowess required for the taxing title role. An Otello of this calibre is rare indeed. Unlike many heroic tenors, his timbre is not baritonal but truly that of a dramatic tenor. His technique is so well‑honed that not a single high note was forced or strained during his entire performance. In addition, his Italian was quite good and his voice had squillo. Kim’s voice is not truly Italianate, but closer to it than most.

For a non-native speaker, he impressed with his emphasis on words like “vergogna,” “menzogna” and “angoscie” in his Act III soliloquy, “Dio! mi potevi scagliar.” He was particularly effective in his emphasis on the brutal words to Desdemona “A terra!... e piangi!” and “Anima mia, ti maledico!.” And he was masterful in the final scene, where his phrasing of “E tu?... come sei pallida! e stanca e muta e bella” brought me to tears.

Mercifully, the director did not make Otello use blackface to portray the Moor. Firstly, it’s embarrassingly passé. Secondly, for a contemporary public, Otello’s alienation, an important factor in his predicament, needs not be based solely on skin colour; it could have its roots in his faith or place of birth.

Canadian baritone Ian MacNeil, as Iago, was a revelation. This first‑rate singing actor is a true bête de scène as well as a promising Verdi baritone in the making. My only reproach is his tendency to overdo it; his facial expressions were unnecessarily exaggerated. Though his diction was clear and idiomatic, it didn’t always correspond with the emotion expressed in the libretto. Future engagements and an extended stay in Italy may do the trick. As a musician, he’s able to perfectly simulate the accent, but the emphasis is not always just. Fortunately, he was perfect for the crucial “La Morte è il Nulla, è vecchia fola il Ciel” in Act II’s credo. Likewise, he savoured the words “Il rio destino impreco che al Moro ti donò” during his wicked insinuation to Otello about Cassio’s apocryphal narration. His line at the end of the act “Quel fazzoletto ieri - certo ne son. Lo vidi in man di Cassio” was deadlier than a dagger. Less dramatically pivotal phrases were disconnected from their emotional weight.

Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was Desdemona in both this production and in Rossini’s tale of the Moor a week earlier, a true tour de force. Both are victims but with different psychological profiles and very different vocal tessituras. Machaidze’s lyric soprano is not as girlish as Desdemona typically sounds in Verdi’s masterpiece. Indeed, at the beginning of her Act I duet with Otello, there was a slight hoarseness in her voice, but she soon recovered. Given her tribulations – a noblewoman marrying a plebeian (albeit a successful one); a Venetian marrying a foreigner in an intolerant society; and marrying an insecure jealous man with a violent temper – Desdemona has to be more mature than her young age.

An exceptional actress, Machaidze succeeded in making Desdemona come to life, a tender and fragile woman with abundant inner radiance. Her phrasing of “un grido di minaccia” in the Act III duet with Otello, “Dio ti giocondi,” was truly frightening.

The idea of Desdemona’s final act prayer taking place on a battlefield of boots was disconcerting. Throughout this intense scene, Emilia rearranges them, a distraction which was both irritating and comical. Possibly it’s her weak attempt at rearranging fate. Regardless, it was a waste to hamper such a sublime interpretation of the plaintive Willow Song, “Canzone del salice.” This long aria can easily bore an audience if not carefully coloured by Desdemona. However, the brilliant Nino Machaidze could not bore if she tried, military boots and all.

She interiorized her anguish at the start of the aria, as if narrating the sad story of her mother’s forlorn servant girl. She later demonstrated that same anguish when it became clear the sad story was a way of recounting her own tribulations, and of foreseeing her doom. Her phrasing of “Il salce funebre sarà la mia ghirlanda” and “Io per amarlo e per morir” were riveting. She artfully managed to sublimate her terror. This was especially palpable as Otello approached her from behind. One could feel the fear and trepidation of her imminent doom. Her strangulation was realistic and well‑staged. However, to be asphyxiated on a battlefield among a plethora of boots was too pathetic for the innocent noblewoman; she deserved more dignity.

American tenor Michael Porter was a charismatic Cassio. Agile onstage, handsome and expressive, he was a credible reason for Otello’s jealousy. Vocally, his suave lyric tenor contrasted with Otello’s dramatic one, and his diction was exemplary. Despite the inane directions she was required to follow (collecting boots, carrying Desdemona’s wedding dress), Claudia Mahnke was a convincing Emilia, more a confidante than a lady‑in‑waiting. Hers is a role often consigned to aging mezzos, but Mahnke is in her prime, and therefore had no difficulty with the tessitura in the final act.

Sesto Quatrini led the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester with special attention to the needs of his singers. This is an intricately woven opera where an unsupportive conductor would destroy them, especially the pivotal Otello. Despite the absence of sensuality in Act I’s love duet “Già nella notte densa,” Quatrini imbued plenty of sexual tension in his artful direction of the orchestra, especially its lush strings and its top‑notch woodwinds. Perhaps his tempi in Iago’s “Credo” were too brisk and forceful. A more thoughtful cynicism would have been more appropriate considering the psychology of the scene.

Throughout the work, Otello slipped on and removed his thick overcoat as respective metaphors for empowerment or a fall from grace. When Iago has the better of him in Act II through his mendacious insinuations and allegations, Iago himself put on the precious coat. In Act III, Iago briefly wears Desdemona’s bridal gown, to imply that he’s removed her innocence in Otello’s eyes. Indeed, the wedding gown was most often thrown on the ground, an obtuse allegory of Desdemona’s trampled honour. In the final act, Emilia places it on a chair. This puerile dress‑up game seemed to evoke silly games at elementary school rather than well‑conceived theatre.

Surprisingly, the Frankfurt public was most courteous at the end of the performance. Applause for the singers was deservedly boisterous but unfortunately there were no catcalls or jeers for those who committed the staging monstrosity. This abhorrent production was surprising, as only a week earlier, the other Otello, by Rossini, was brilliantly staged at the very same theatre. Nonetheless, thanks are in order to the Frankfurter Oper for the experience of seeing both works in the same week.

Ossama el Naggar



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