Arts: Barbed wire lacerates Verdi


"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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?