Culture and Civilisations

A strong cast for Verdi's take on Shakespeare's Otello

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A strong cast for Verdi's take on Shakespeare's Otello

Gregory Kunde and Ermonela Jaho in Otello ROH 2019 (Catherine Ashmore)

Shakespeare was arguably Verdi’s favourite playwright, but before Otello, his only opera based on the Bard’s plays was Macbeth. When he gave up creating operas he was persuaded to return to composition, creating his final two operas Otello and Falstaff, both based on Shakespeare.

Among the younger men in Milan who convinced him to take up composition again was Arrigo Boito, a serious composer in his own right who wrote the libretto for this opera. It is beautifully constructed and engages the audience with a theatricality to which director Keith Warner adds two clever curtain openers: Iago spotlighted on a dark stage at the start, and Otello himself after the interval at the start of Act III.

This opera and Warner’s production show very clearly Otello’s descent into jealous madness, contrasted with the jubilant scenes at the start, where the wonderful movement among the actors forms a prelude to his victorious arrival after defeating the Saracens in the eastern Mediterranean.

The opening of this production in 2017 was under the baton of music director Antonio Pappano. He gave wonderful nuance to this revival, in which the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho sang Desdemona. Now a Royal Opera regular, she returns later this season in the title role of Madama Butterfly, and brings a magical ability to float soft notes across the auditorium, which she did to huge effect in the Willow Song of Act IV.

Otello’s descent into insanity was superbly portrayed by the American tenor Gregory Kunde who shared the role in 2017 with Jonas Kaufmann and sang it with the company in Japan this September. His clear, open voice exhibited just the right darkness of tone, wonderfully expressing the pain he feels after his Act III duet with Desdemona, and as he later lies prone on stage, Iago places the mask of death over his face.

As Iago, the Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez portrayed the role robustly and securely, a man confident that he can modify his plans at any time to succeed, and in his Act II lie Era la notte his voice expressed diabolical insinuation. Among other roles, British tenor Freddie de Tommaso made an impressively sincere Cassio, David Soar a firmly sung Ambassador from Venice, and Catherine Carby a self-effacing Emilia, wife to Iago and lady in waiting to Desdemona. There were excellent interactions and placing on stage, and the chorus were simply magnificent.

Performances continue until December 22 — details here.

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