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

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The Independent Culture

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).