Johan Botha & Renee Fleming in Met Opera's "Otello"
(photo: Ken Howard)
Most will be familiar with the plot based on the Shakespearean tale of the Moor, Othello, governor of Cyprus (tenor Johan Botha) who returns victorious from war with the Turks. His ensign, Iago (baritone Falk Struckmann), hates Otello for advancing Cassio (tenor Michael Fabiano) over him; he thus convinces a drunken Roderigo (tenor Eduardo Valdes), who’s in love with Otello’s wife Desdemona (soprano Renée Fleming), to get into a fight with Cassio, which leads to Otello’s cancellation of Cassio’s promotion. Otello notices Desdemona’s disturbed reaction to this, but for the moment they pledge mutual love. Iago urges Cassio to plead his case to Desdemona, and when alone sings of his belief in the cruelty of God and evil of mankind. When with Otello, Iago casually questions Desdemona’s fidelity, planting seeds of jealousy. Her plea on behalf of Cassio only stirs the pot and she leaves, throwing down her handkerchief, which her attendant (conveniently, Iago’s wife), Emilia (mezzo Renée Tatum) rescues. Iago tells Otello he saw it in Cassio’s hand, leading to the Moor’s swearing an oath of vengeance. Iago joins him, in a chilling, justifiably famous, duet, wherein the servant becomes the master.
Later, Otello demands the handkerchief from Desdemona, which of course she can’t produce. She makes an all too ill-timed plea for Cassio again, which inflames Otello to accuse her of infidelity. Later, Iago, handkerchief in hand, sets up a conversation with Cassio to be observed by Otello, who assumes they are talking about Desdemona. Recalled to Venice by Lodovico (bass James Morris), Otello explodes, insults Desdemona, and collapses in a seizure as Iago exults. Later, Desdemona prepares for bed, praying. Otello wakes her with a kiss and talks of killing her, causing her to protest her innocence, which further inflames him to strangle her to death. Emilia enters with the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo and reveals what Iago has manipulated. Otello sings of past glory and stabs himself, kissing his wife for one last time before expiring.
As conducted by Semyon Bychkov, this was a stirring performance, with the expected fine level of singing, this despite the fact that Botha had been ill for days prior to the broadcast, and in close-ups appeared feverish. Fleming proved once again that, even if she’s not quite the pure singer she was earlier in her career, she is one of the Met’s best actresses. The rest of the cast, especially the chorus in some lengthy segments, is memorable as well. The Production by Elijah Moshinsky with Set Design by Michael Yeargan, is a bit clunky to say the least (sometimes hindering the crowd movement as well as the Choreography by Eleanor Fazan), and at least in the first and third acts too dimly lit (with Lighting Design by Duane Schuler) to appreciate the intricate Costume Design by Peter J. Hall.
Verdi’s music is of course wonderful, especially the “Credo” by Iago, the prayer scenes with Desdemona, and the entire last act. His use of solo instruments (the cello in the first act, the clarinet in the final act) is quite remarkable, delivered beautifully in this performance. This broadcast, hosted by Sondra Radvanovsky, was a production well worth taking in, even for a second time.