Classical music: The ego has landed

OTELLO BARBICAN HALL LONDON

THE HEAVENS opened. And with nothing to come between us and the teeth of the storm - no enclosing proscenium, no sound-soaking orchestra pit - and with Verdi's squally trumpets strafing the auditorium, with his prayer for deliverance in the open throats of a big, static chorus, the impact of Otello's great opening scene was tremendous.

Alright, so the London Symphony Chorus were a bit (well, actually a lot) home counties, so the vowels were too well-enunciated, but they rode the crest of an orchestral sound that Sir Colin Davis kept as tough and sinewy, if not always as lean and mean and rhythmic - as electric - as it might have been. The storm raged in the imagination.

But concert performance or not, Jose Cura was not about to leave his entrance to anyone's imagination. Striding purposefully from the wings, arms flung wide to greet his adoring public in the hour of his triumph, the question immediately arose - his triumph or Otello's?

No contest. The ego that he, Jose Cura, projects on stage or concert platform is becoming increasingly difficult to get beyond. It's getting in the way. More worryingly, it's becoming a subterfuge, a useful distraction from all that is lacking in voice and artistry.

With looks and presence and star-quality like his, it's an easy distraction to pull off. But if you close your eyes and listen, really listen, what do you hear beyond an admittedly striking timbre? Beyond the big notes, beyond the "operatic" posturing?

You don't hear long, grateful, sustained legatos. You don't hear emotion conveyed in the shape of phrase and line. You hear emoting, you hear phrase after half-sung phrase broken by sobs and glottal stops. You don't hear elegantly turned quiet singing. You hear a voice which only really speaks below mezzo-forte in a self-conscious falsetto. I read somewhere that Cura believes that the only way to sing Otello is in the bel canto manner. When?

So did Iago steal the show, as he is wont to do? Carlos Alvarez looked the part, even out of costume, and sang it decently enough. But the text passed him and us by in a mellifluous but all-purpose monochrome. Whatever happened to those contemptuous consonants, those enticing insinuations, the whispers in Otello's ear? His wife Emilia - a striking Enkelejda Shkosa - could show him a thing or two about making the moment, every moment, count.

And so, in her fashion, could Andrea Dankova's Desdemona. It's not a voice to warm to, being narrow and highly strung, lacking bloom at all parts of the register. It doesn't invite "the sweet and glad word of pardon"; it doesn't yield in the true Verdian sense. But it carries an intensity and conviction that draws you in. The stillness, plangency, and terrible isolation of her "Willow Song" was a rare moment of tangible drama in an evening more notable for the pageantry of its chorus and orchestra and the shameless posturing of its star turn.

Last performance on Sunday 23 May. Box office: 0171-638 8891

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