Verdi's Otello

Royal Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, London

For years now he's been diminished by his entrance, slipping almost apologetically into the jubilant throng from a makeshift ramp somewhere downstage left. At last, then, Verdi's Othello gets the star treatment - upstage centre where he belongs, his adoring public parting like the Red Sea on his approach. Esultate! I say.

Just in case you hadn't noticed (and the ads are striking but less insistent than Mr Gubbay's), our nomadic Royal Opera have made it over to Kensington Gore, where Albert and Victoria's folly provides an almost surreally convincing environment for Verdi's majestic take on Shakespeare. Indeed, Elijah Moshinsky's painterly staging looks like it landed unannounced sometime in the night and plans to stay a while. It's still, broadly speaking, the proscenium show it always was (so, for that matter, was the ghastly Gubbay/Dunlop "arena" staging of Carmen), but the excellent lighting designer, Howard Harrison (new to the original production team), has lent it a touch of, dare I say, the rock operatic: dramatic configurations of light strafing the air, lightning and fire flooding the auditorium, and even - in anticipation of Othello and Desdemona's night of love - a display of moody violet light (all right, so maybe that's a little too Pink Floyd) designed to make the Albert Hall saucers appear as planetary constellations. So, it's less subtle than it was back in Bow Street, less moody (those huge painted cloths look less impressive out of the half-light), but its statuesque tableaux still dignify the piece as ever they did, and when trumpets sounding from the four corners of the gallery announce the arrival of the ambassador from Venice, the entire hall seems to open to the occasion.

Considering the acoustical problems for staged opera in this venue, it sounds better than expected. The orchestra, it has to be said, gets the rawest deal. Its immediacy (particularly with regard to strings and solo woodwind), its fibre and rhythmic profile are seriously undermined in spite of Jacques Delacote's dynamic urgings. Still, one's ears adjust, and better this than the "canned" effect of heavy amplification. Some "sound enhancement" was in evidence, but so was discretion. Iago's drinking song got a bit of a lift in Act 1, but the voices remained real as opposed to humanoid, belonging to their owners as opposed to sounding borrowed for the evening.

Vladimir Bogachov (Otello) tends to "borrow" his head-voice - at least that's the effect of a break that is awkwardly negotiated on almost every occasion he makes the transition into mezza voce. It's an honest enough performance within its own "operatic" terms of reference, but it doesn't go a whole lot deeper than the standard body make-up for jobbing Otellos. Still, the "Lion of Venice" can and does roar, a gusty Verona-style declamation to the back of the gallery, where the punters demand, and get, their fair share of the visceral.

But they get much, much more from Sergei Leiferkus's Iago, whose sibilant insinuations are doubly menacing for the casual manner of their delivery. His "Credo" - as dark and spacious as an empty tomb in its closing pages - was a manifesto you could believe in, tremble at. Splendid, too, was Daniela Dessi's Desdemona, wearing the style like couture, authentic in phrasing and timbre right down to the little touch of vinegar in the voice. Without surtitles*, and with prices a little up on Gubbay's for Carmen (around pounds 15 more at the top end of the scale), there will still be those for whom "the Royal Opera" will never be "the People's Opera" (whatever that is) wherever they perform. But, my goodness, a show like this doesn't half put to shame anything that "the people's producer" has thus far put before the people.

Further performances: tomorrow and Sat, 7.30pm. Booking: 0171-589 8212

Edward Seckerson

* and, for those in need, I should perhaps have translated that Esultate! above as "Rejoice!"

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