Opera: He has done the stage some service, and we know it

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The Independent Culture
Otello

English National Opera

The Desert Storm interpretation of Verdi's - black general defends world power from Muslim threat - will one day be unleashed on the world. For the moment, staying closer to the text, we must make do with the contemporary vision of a divided Cyprus. David Freeman's fighting new production of Verdi's greatest tragedy at English National Opera has conning towers, revolving radar antennae, cocked pistols and barking sarn't majors everywhere.

Even the mildest opera has always been for David Freeman a potentially coded dispatch from the front line of current affairs. His last ENO production - Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten - had Uzis and epaulettes everywhere, not unjustifiably given that the subject was soldiers; his , garrison drama par excellence, continues the militaristic tradition. But was Verdi's wild, storm-tossed, fiercely orchestra dissonant opening - thwacked merrily into play by Paul Daniel and his ENO orchestra - really prefaced by a tank rumble?

Both the translation and designs of this - ENO's first new one since 1982 - are by the poet, composer and Royal Academician Tom Phillips, who explains his double involvement with the suggestion that "both activities are, with regard to their respective idioms, kinds of translation". His task was large: Verdi's librettist, Boito, knew his Shakespeare in French, and the risk of the text developing a case of Chinese whispers between Elizabethan England, Risorgimento Italy and the London Coliseum on a cold Friday was considerable. Despite the odd "dandified cocksure captain", the translation is elegant and natural.

Verdi came close to calling the opera Iago - thus avoiding comparisons with both Shakespeare and Rossini, and placing the centre of the action, more even than in the play, on the honest Italian. ENO's Iago, Robert Hayward, wears, like everyone else (including his wife Emilia) a green beret and looks officious. But only he is a Hollywood geek, tearing off his specs to deliver his black Credo - "I'm evil because I'm human" - and downloading pornography from the net in his spare time (not shown, but I'll lay money on it). Hayward's wonderfully grainy and sinister bartitone - Iago must "declaim and snicker", said Verdi - was one of the evening's triumphs.

Paul Daniel immerses his orchestra in the long flow of the piece: he's not fully in control in the first act, but an impressive grip is finally exerted, after an unsure, incoherent beginning. 's double explosion on stage, rejoicing and commanding; the drinking song with which Iago brings about Cassio's downfall and practises the even greater one on : these are fire-lights that flames out of the dark. So much of Verdi's opera has a dark tonal vision. Daniel etches it sharply and vividly. Only the summertime chorus of praise for Desdemona - little out-of-tune girls in dresses - is an embarrassment: to which Verdi has added the cruelly authentic sound of the Cypriot taverna: all woozy mandolins and plunking strings.

It is wonderfully strongly cast. David Rendall's joins Robert Hayward's Iago insome of the most purposeful and powerful male singing - "blood, blood, blood" - the Coliseum has seen in a long time, though their best efforts are constantly undermined by the barking soldiery and the absurdly naturalistic direction. Verdi's great Act III ensemble has more than enough sweep and whoosh. But only in the intimate moments ready-made by the text is the music really allowed to do what it, and the singers, are so capable of: to take hold of one and tug.

Desdemona? She should be "a melodic line that never stops", according to the composer. Susan Bullock is this and more: a truly moving soap- operatic heroine, not frightened to slap back. The Dickensian lyricism of Verdi's concept - the composer envisaged her as the embodiment of "goodness, resignation and self-sacrifice" - is replaced by a creature who flings her beach towel at her maid and prepares herself for death with enough guts to strike terror in one's heart. The dark, owlish cor anglais of her Willow Song, the private, lyrical, reflective moment shattered by 's anger; her howled farewell - an outburst of death foreseen: genuine spine-chilling drama takes centre stage at last.

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