Verdi's Otello, at the Royal Opera House, is a revelation. Based on Shakespeare's Othello, the story of love, jealousy and treachery is immediately familiar. What makes this production extraordinary, however, is star tenor Jonas Kaufmann, performing the title role for the first time.
In his autobiography, Placido Domingo – the most prodigious operatic Moor of Venice – set out a long genealogy of the greats who tackled the part before him. It stretches back to the premier performance, 130 years ago at la Scala, detailing how each luminary was compared unfavourably to their immediate predecessor. So it is reasonable to ask, how does Kaufmann compare to this most famous of modern tenors?
Simply put, Kaufmann is the great Otello for this generation of opera lovers. He manages the huge demands of the role with skill and charisma. He quietens a drunken brawl through the power of song with such force that you feel that you’re one of those he’s ordering to be silent. At the other extreme, he sings the tenderest words of love and the most tortuous depths of despair, to the point where you feel your own emotions fracturing.
The three main roles are among the most demanding in Verdi's oeuvre, and Kaufmann's Otello is ably supported by Marco Vratogna's malicious Iago, and Maria Agresta's doomed Desdemona. Vratogna's portrayal of Iago’s malevolent scheming is genuinely unsettling; while the character repels you, he also holds your fascination.
Argesta's Desdemona, meanwhile, melts your heart. She imbues the torture and desperation of trying to prove herself guiltless with tragic compassion. In the aria Ave Maria, performed when she can see that she’s losing Otello, she pulls you into her anguish, so that you feel the loss too. This core trio were brilliantly supported by the young Canadian Frédéric Antoun singing the role of Cassio, and New Zealander Thomas Atkins in the role of Roderigo.
Director Keith Warner creates an intimacy in the scenes with Otello and Desdemona, in stark contrast to the wide open splendour of the larger scenes, while Boris Kudlička's set designs impart a sense of 'seeing and not seeing', through a sliding array of Arabic inspired fretwork panels. The giant lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice so triumphant earlier in the opera, lies smashed and broken by the end.