Arts: Barbed wire lacerates Verdi

Opera: OTELLO ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA LONDON

"HAIL OUR triumph!" proclaims David Rendall's trumpet-toned Otello. "The swollen pride of Islam is drowned at sea. God on our side gave glory!" That he does so in camouflage battle dress, a latter-day soldier geeing up his troops to fight the good fight until the Turkish threat is finally no more, carries with it an unsettling immediacy. Old enmities die hard: Cyprus then, Cyprus now; 15th century/20th century; Islam/Christianity; Asia/Europe. The emblem of the Lion of St Mark - the heraldic symbol of Venice, then and now - is everywhere, the common link with a longer history. But "the thunder of war" remains the common denominator, now as then, so Verdi's storm kicks in - as does David Freeman's new staging for English National Opera - on red alert. Only the perimeter fences, barbed wire and radar betray a shift in time.

But that shift in time is critical. In bringing Otello's triumph and catastrophe that much closer to us, we must first and foremost believe what we see. And I didn't for one second believe Tom Phillips's set. The first strong wind to come in off the sea would surely have carried these flimsy fortifications away with it. Nothing about it rang true (would any military outfit really keep their precious surveillance equipment in the highest and most vulnerable tower on the base?). It wasn't substantial enough, solid enough, tall enough, intimidating enough. And, under the harsh scrutiny of military arc lights, it looked cheaply makeshift.

All of which put Freeman's work at a distinct disadvantage. You could see what he was about, you could see how this military environment might "cage" his protagonists, leave them exposed, bereft of privacy, unable to hide. There are no convenient pillars around which Iago might skulk, no dark corners in which deceit and treachery might breed. But it does. And into this alien world comes Desdemona, alone, homesick, probably seasick, but determined to tough it out for the sake of the man she loves, the man she would, and will, follow to the ends of the earth.

That she doesn't belong is very well conveyed by Freeman and the excellent Susan Bullock. In the final scene we see that she hasn't even had time to unpack, that all her worldly possessions are contained in a couple of suitcases, that in the heat of military action she has even been denied married quarters - a single cot is to be her bridal bed. It's an image that plays very knowingly against the distant "romance" of the 15th century setting, to say nothing of Verdi's magnificent score. "Look, Venus is splendour!" sings Otello at the climax of their ecstatic act one duet, but the starry, starry night seems all too remote as a single moonbeam (or searchlight?) picks them out against the barbed wire fence. Not even then, you realise, are they alone.

So Desdemona's private longing and public humiliation are really what this production is all about, and you feel it most strongly at the terrible climax of act three where she's seen running scared (as if trapped in a human maze) through ranks of marching soldiers. If only that level of theatricality had been maintained - and better achieved visually - then there were the makings of an interesting production here.

You've got to hand it to Freeman, though - he gets performances. Bullock's Desdemona was outstanding. International. Here was no passive Desdemona content to simper and float her way through the proceedings. Here was a Desdemona who would raise her hand to Otello, who would fight for her life. Conflicting feelings of love, fear, disbelief and contempt were excitingly wrestled in the voice, an ample voice which can spin and fill a Verdian phrase as surely as it can strip it bare. Her cry of farewell to Emilia must have been heard all the way down St Martin's Lane. As must most of what David Rendall sang.

His Otello was possessed of a thrilling virility, an ecstasy turned to madness. The top of voice has always been exciting, but it's weathered now into something quite elemental - as indeed have the darker, lower recesses, wherein lies the role's private torment.

Robert Hayward's Iago was believable when he thundered, casually removing his steel-rimmed spectacles (the suave serial killer look) to remind us that he believed (as if we hadn't already guessed) "in a cruel God". He was less interesting, less alluring, in his quieter, "friendlier" persuasions, though I liked the way his arms were poised ready to catch Otello as he casually recounted what Cassio once said in his sleep. Paul Daniel's conducting felt stronger on impact than impulse. Tom Phillips's translation was stronger than his designs. In fact, everyone was stronger than the end product led you to believe.

Edward Seckerson

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