Grand Theatre, Leeds

Classical review: Otello - Race plays second fiddle to suspicion

This Otello is pitifully vulnerable to the lies that will destroy him. But something's wrong when the orchestra steals the show

Transposed to a Second World War naval base, Tim Albery's claustrophobic production of Otello for Opera North strips Verdi's Shakespearean tragedy of its customary velvet and brocade. Racial and cultural tensions, so vividly foregrounded in Graham Vick's immersive modern-dress production for Birmingham Opera Company in 2009, are cooled to a low simmer. Only two people in this pristine battleship-grey fortress seem to care about the colour of Otello's skin. One is David Kempster's Iago, pale, paunchy and past it, embittered at being passed over for promotion; the other is Otello himself, Ronald Samm, heavy with sadness and love, oblivious to Iago's hatred and pitifully vulnerable to the lie that will destroy his sanity.

Though Albery's opening sequence is tautly choreographed, with madrigalian detail from the chorus and dramatic side-lighting from the swinging doors on each side of Leslie Travers' austere set, the production is slow to ignite. In the pit, Richard Farnes demands unstinting engagement from the woodwind and lower strings. But only when Elena Kelessidi's diminutive Desdemona nestles into the great-coated bulk of her beloved husband ("un bacio ... ancora un bacio") do stage and pit align. This is love-music that sounds like a private ritual, blue as the night, drunk with desire.

Otello is a curious opera. The contrasts between innocent and corrupt sonorities in Act II – the blithe children's chorus and on-stage mandolins, the tarry contrabassoon of Iago's "Credo in un Dio crudel" – are crude, the duet between Iago and Otello is gaudily pointed with yelping cuckold's horns. Having fought his way out of slavery, Otello is enslaved again by suspicion. In the Birmingham production, Samm's Act III soliloquy became the roar of a caged animal. In Leeds, it is the flat misery of a man who has been expecting a reversal of fortune. Dry and tight of tone for much of the performance, Kelessidi sings Act IV with great feeling. Not for the first time, I wished someone would do for Iago's wife Emilia (Ann Taylor) what Jean Rhys did for Bertha Rochester in The Wide Sargasso Sea. Bristling with mixed motives and divided loyalties, Taylor goes some way towards giving us more of this pivotal but underwritten character. There is strong support from Michael Wade Lee's swaggering Cassio, Christopher Turner's petulant Roderigo and Henry Waddington's grave Lodovico. But when the most consistently dynamic performance in an opera comes from the pit, something's not quite right on stage.

The first programme in Fretwork's (Kings Place, London) triptych of concerts in memory of cellist and viola da gamba player Richard Campbell, Musick's Monument, opened with a sequence of works for viol consort from Robert Parsons, Christopher Tye and Robert White. Hall One of Kings Place has an acoustic so clear that it can verge on the painful in certain repertoire. Here it was simply perfect, every breath of every bow sounding pure and true, each glance of a false relation scissoring through the textures, each work's character made immediate from Parsons' bustling In Nomine III a 5 to White's more melancholy In Nomine a 5, the serene contours of his famous Ave Maria (given here without voices), and the top-heavy playfulness of Tye's peculiar fantasia Rubum Quem.

At the centre of the concert were two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the first by Tallis, the second by White, who died of the plague in his mid-thirties. Was the object to illustrate the similarity between the viol and the voice?

Directed by David Skinner, the vocal consort Alamire sang the Tallis a capella, the voices beautifully balanced, from Robert Macdonald's bitumen bass through to Nicholas Todd's honeyed high tenor and Clare Wilkinson's soft-grained mezzo-soprano. I had forgotten how powerful this text is, the bleakness and savagery of the imagery, the expressivity of Tallis's word-setting, the final chords arranged like a question mark. In White's setting, played by Fretwork without the singers, the same words shimmered over the viols, unheard but implied.

Composed for Fretwork and Red Byrd in 1993, Thea Musgrave's Wild Winter closed the programme, an exquisite frost of pizzicato and razored figures for the viols, and chill, Britten-esque settings of poems by Wilfred Owen, Lorca, Stephen Crane, Pushkin, Petrarch, Victor Hugo and Georg Trakl, directed by baritone Greg Skidmore. The encore, Nymphes des bois, Josquin's 1497 memorial to the Flemish composer Ockeghem, was apt. Viols and voices were at last coupled on the same sweet, sad lines.

'Otello': (0844 848 2700) to 17 Feb, then touring.

Critic's choice

Chopin concertos abound as Janina Fialkowska joins Fabien Gabel and the RPO to play the Piano Concerto No 2 in Croydon's Fairfield Halls (Wed), touring Cambridge, London, Leeds and Northampton, and Andris Nelsons conducts Simon Trpceski and the CBSO in the Piano Concerto No 1 at Symphony Hall Birmingham (Wed & Thu), touring to Oxford (Fri) and Malvern (Sat). Silent Opera turn the Thames into the Styx in Monteverdi's l'Orfeo at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London (Wed to 10 Feb).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching