Otello, Royal Opera House, London

Moor's the pity
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The Independent Culture

Another night with the Kirov. Another risible piece of theatre. But finally at least a trio of principals worthy of the company name and reputation. Relief? Yes. Cause for rejoicing? I think not. The sooner Valery Gergiev and his company realise that quality singing is dependent upon quality staging to make quality opera, then the sooner they will start to grow as a company. Their growth is stunted in a lazy and complacent past. Even a director as young and talented as David McVicar – his Macbeth was the only staging of this season one could begin to take seriously – could not break through the unwillingness to explore and move on that is the curse of this company. The near-defiance with which the stars of this Otello milked their solo curtain-calls told us a great deal about their priorities as artists. Yes, just like the good old bad old days. With a few concessions to what passes for contemporary in 21st century Russia.

Doubtless the designer, Semyon Pastukh, thought it chic or ironic or simply a good wheeze to present his chorus in plastic macs for the opening storm scene. A billowing stage cloth made for quite a strong image – a raging, inky-black sea – but our eyes were quickly diverted by the ridiculous costumes. Sliding panels of beaten and bolted steel then gave us the basis of the set: another timeless allusion, this time to ships and shipbuilding or – with its blazing furnace and steam vents – the boiler-room of hell. Gigantic suits of armour, dismembered gauntlets, and a small forest of outsized daggers were, presumably, emblematic of chivalry.

Yuri Alexandrov, the director, would seem to have been obsessed by the dagger motif. The same dagger that bonds Otello and Iago in blood, the same dagger on which they swear vengeance, sits spotlit at the foot of the stage waiting for the moment when Otello will use it to dispatch his sorry soul. We are, of course, supposed to believe that the Moor is totally taken in by his trusted ensign, and yet at Iago's first suggestion that Desdemona might have a less than healthy interest in Cassio, Otello has him pinioned by heavies while he yanks back his head by the hair demanding proof for his insinuation. How's that for undermining the insidious way in which the deception is laid; the veneer of civility which is at the heart of that and every scene between these two protagonists. Has this director even read the play?

For the rest, it was the usual ham and eggy mix illuminated not by textual insights but washes of lurid coloured lighting and driven to furious effect by Gergiev. Nikolai Putilin gave us his King Rat of an Iago, imposing of voice but trans-parent of manner, a villain Otello could spot at 100 paces, which rather misses the point. He even appeared, ghost-like, to urge Otello on in the final scene. What was that about? Maintaining the world-class level of crassness? Olga Guriakova was an affecting Desdemona, something real among so many mannequins. The singing took a while to settle but at least it came from somewhere.

Vladimir Galuzin's Otello was spectacular in the trumpet-toned heroics. His top notes are as visceral, as thrilling as any on the international circuit but he could still use the darker baritonal cast of the voice to greater effect and if he really thought about the words and how they connect to the music, he might even move us. His Act III monologue was reduced to the usual vocal and physical flailing. Deeper resonances eluded him because the text eluded him. Galuzin could be a great Otello but only if he is prepared to put aside the traditional Kirov way of doing things and make that risky voyage of discovery that is at the heart of all great theatre. That goes for the entire company.

Further Kirov performances to Saturday (020-7304 4000)