The Met opened its 2015-16 season on Monday night with Verdi’s masterpiece Otello. In a new production designed by Bartlett Sher, Aleksandrs Antonenko sang the title role, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva was Desdemona, and Želijko Lučić played the villainous Iago. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Met Orchestra and Chorus.
The production left me craving drama and intimacy. As these two elements are so crucial to Shakespeare’s original play, I felt that they were lost in the shuffle as Sher’s stage simply felt “too big”. The initial storm from Act I plays a role throughout the opera, acting as the backdrop within acts and as a moving projection with churning waves beginning each act. This represented some drama, at least, in that the storm symbolized Otello’s increasing suspicion and unsteady mind, just as his ship had almost capsized. The only solid components of the set were opaque walls that could be rearranged to create his realm, gardens, etc. As the walls were opaque, not transparent, one could say that the lack of transparency and pellucidity represented Otello’s obscured vision at the hands of Iago. Otello is only able to see what Iago has envisioned for him, not reality. Therefore, the frosty walls of his palace represented his inability to see what is truly occurring live. Even with this potential subtext, I missed the intense intimacy between Otello and Iago, as the foggy walls and a plethora of empty stage did not allow for it. Overall, the production was dull and, to a point, tedious after sitting for 150 minutes of music.
Antonenko was a solid Otello. At times, his voice sounded tight, especially near the top, making it difficult to hear him over the orchestra. However, his intensity in both Acts III and IV was frightening, and his voice also seemed to ease up after the first two acts allowing him to sing more strongly. Sonya Yoncheva was an astounding Desdemona. She had the entire audience in the palm of her hand as she sang her Willow Song. She sang it so simply, as the true “old tale” that it is. Her bloom at the top of her register is very attractive and easy-sounding. Lučić was a creepy Iago. I had difficulty hearing the resonance in his sound in order to push past the orchestra, but his acting put his point across. His duets with Otello were thrilling and balanced.
The conducting by Maestro Nézet-Séguin made the performance come alive. His stress for sforzandi and dramatic dynamic changes brought out vigor and agility in the orchestra and chorus. Chills went up my spine at the moment he brought in the double basses on the low E right as Otello enters to kill Desdemona in Act IV. The shifts in mood of the music were so clearly defined. The orchestra followed suit under his baton. The strings particularly sounded like “one voice”, reveling in Verdi’s gorgeous parts. It was also indicated that the brass had the green light to play out, which made the performance all the more riveting. The chorus sounded full and powerful, especially in their two bigs scenes: The drinking scene in Act I and with Lodovico in Act III.
The current run of Otello will be on the Met stage until October 17, until it returns in April with a different cast. Buy tickets today to see one of four Verdi operas this season!