It's Hall or nothing for the Moor
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Wednesday 25 July 2001
Anyone still wondering why the Kirov Opera were given such a rough ride during their disastrous Verdi season should get themselves down to Glyndebourne to experience first-hand what happens when a seasoned theatre director – Sir Peter Hall – and a fine cast willing to explore, to question, to use their heads as well as their larynxes, get to grips with a seasoned text. Opera as grown-up theatre is what happens. Theatre that thrills not on account of its "effects" or vocal fireworks – though heaven knows there are plenty of those on display – but rather on account of its understanding.
Hall's staging of Verdi's Otello is, on the surface of it, a solid, well-crafted, well-designed (John Gunter), well-cast exposition of a great piece. And yet it is more, much more than that. Underpinning everything is this burning desire to uncover the reasons why things are said and done. We call it subtext. There's a lot to be said for it.
Barely a week ago, the Kirov tackled the self-same opera and in a production of incomprehensible pretension and silliness, a handful of "star" performers went through the motions of being "operatic" without ever really understanding who they were or how they might relate to each other. Emotions were worn like achievement medals. Actions were meaningless.
Imagine, then, the impact of coming from that to a production in which every line of text – and the reasons for it – were taken account of. Notwithstanding the period update to Napoleonic times – a period where the emotions were as well-trussed as the clothes – Hall's staging may look traditional but it's as fresh and unhackneyed and powerful as any I've seen.
At the heart of it is Iago. "An honest man is a paltry actor," he says. Anthony Michaels-Moore is a terrific actor and a damn fine singer, too. His Iago is lethal because he's charming. You don't see so much as a flicker of the wickedness until he is alone. And even then, his malignancy is offset by his physical nonchalance. Lounging back in Otello's chair, his feet up on the desk, he smugly concludes his credo, certain in the belief that life's a bitch and then you die. Dog will eat dog. And after death – nothing.
The ensuing scene with Otello has tremendous tension, Iago constantly watching his prey but careful not to be seen to be watching. In Act III, he literally pulls his victim together at the point of imminent collapse. Heaven forfend that anything should compromise the dénouement of his deception: the arrival of Cassio (the excellent Kurt Streit) with that handkerchief. God really is in the detail of this production.
David Rendall is probably giving the performance of his life as Otello. Time and again, his authority is cruelly undermined by his vulnerability. He really conveys that, not just physically but in his singing. The middle of his voice may now be showing signs of wear and tear, but here's an Otello who doesn't live only for the big notes, who doesn't fudge the difficulties – like the rapt ascents of the love duet, the final line, "Venus is aglow", delivered pianissimo for a change, in his most tender head voice. His Desdemona is Susan Chilcott, in whom we have an international star in the making. Together, they make each phrase of that love duet so precious as to dramatically heighten the explicit brutality to come. There's a brilliant stroke from Hall in the final scene, where Otello's hands reach towards the throat of the sleeping Desdemona only to be halted by the music underscoring their first kiss. For a moment or two, we glimpse once more the tenderness of what might have been.
Conductor Richard Farnes could teach the Kirov's Valery Gergiev a thing or two about how to pace this piece. From the moment that the heavens open and Glyndebourne's small but wonderfully incisive chorus signal the return of their conquering hero, this, their first Otello, is a gripping and memorable occasion.
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