On stage, the first of Elijah Moshinsky's Renaissance pictures came to life: windswept figures clinging to a watchtower like the bow of a ship, a giant cannon prepared for action, huge unfurling flags, and dominating all, a lowering fresco of the crucifixion. It's a grand, statuesque, eminently operatic show, more tableaux vivants than living drama: the towering pillars of Timothy O'Brien's handsome sets seem almost to challenge big charismatic opera stars to stand their ground.
Placido Domingo always stands his. This Otello is every inch the warrior/general - magnificent plumage, magnificent presence, not easily diminished. Except, oddly enough, by his first entrance - an apologetic affair, extreme downstage left from the stalls circle. If ever an entrance demanded upstage-centre, this is it. It's the only weak blocking in Moshinsky's otherwise well-visualised staging. But it does bring Domingo to the bosom of his audience for that great opening solo Esultate] - a shout of triumph which even Shakespeare would have envied.
Domingo has no equals in the role at present, but such are the standards he has set himself that he seemed subdued, occasionally tense during the first two acts. I particularly missed the soft, 'mixed voice' ascents, once so ravishing during the love duet, while his baying for blood in Act 2 suggested he might be nursing resources for the great third act. That was vintage: as the moor's jealousy deepens, the middle and bottom range, the dark baritonal colours of Domingo's voice come somberly into their own.
The soliloquy, haunted by Solti's whimpering violins, was poignant indeed, the tortured climax thrilling - it always is. And to see this proud figure trapped in darkness by a single spotlight and then suddenly, cruelly thrown once more into the blinding light of public pageantry remains the most theatrical moment of the evening.
Sergei Leiferkus's Iago is interesting, the evil somehow more insidious for his lightness of touch, his almost surgical precision. There are vocal resonances one misses here (the sound is somewhat straight and narrow): the menace of his 'Credo' emerged more threateningly in Solti's seething orchestra. But the understatement was chilling, the silky mezza voce insinuations, the whispered sweet somethings in Otello's ear - all this was wickedly persuasive. Even the Leiferkus sibilants (he'll always sound Russian, Italian text or no) sounded positively reptilian.
Not that any Otello could seriously doubt Dame Kiri's Desdemona - surely the most affecting of all her stage roles. Yes, it's a little queenly, almost too poised to be true, but the flottando qualities of her voice, the way she lifts and holds the serene pianissimi of the 'Willow Song' cannot be overpraised. Such was the spell she cast here, that when Verdi's double-basses heralded Otello's entrance with their grim bottom E (five-and-a-half octaves below the violins' heavenly A flat), the fear was almost tangible. Solti made the most of that. It was his night. No sooner had Otello gasped his last when old 'friends' emerged bearing birthday gifts: Hans Hotter presented a certain 'Ring', minus its curse, Birgit Nilsson offered Isolde's chalice, minus the love potion. What else do you give the Wagnerian who has everything? The title: 'Music Director Laureate of the Royal Opera'. It's the least we could do.
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