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A Missed Opportunity: Opening Night at the Met

New York
Metropolitan Opera
09/21/2015 -  & September 28, October 2, 6, 10, 14, 17, 2015, April 20, 23, 28, May 2, 6, 2016
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Jeff Mattsey (Montano), Dimitri Pittas (Cassio), Zeljko Lucic (Iago), Chad Shelton (Rodrigo), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona), Jennifer Johnson Caro (Emilia), Tyler Duncan (Herlad), Günther Groissböck (Lodovico)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
Bartlett Sher (production), Es Devlin (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Donald Holder (lights), Luke Halls (projections)

Z. Lucic, S. Yoncheva, A. Antonenko
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Verdi’s penultimate opera – the second of his three works adapted from Shakespeare – rages with such intensity that any fresh interpretation should demand the opera world’s undivided attention. Opening the Met’s 2015-2016 season, Bartlett Sher’s new production only heightened the sense of expectation. A prize-winning Broadway director now in his sixth essay for the Met, Sher’s new Otello assembled a promising young cast of singers who have only recently arrived at the top of the operatic world. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko’s authority in the title role is known to New York audiences from his 2011 concert performance with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva debuted to stellar reviews just two seasons ago after starting her career in Europe. The older baritone Zeljko Lucic has delivered commanding performances of several progressively more challenging Verdi baritone parts over the past decade; his Iago was much anticipated. After a string of triumphs in some of the repertoire’s most demanding works, the 40-year old French Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is widely rumored to be a possible successor to Met music director James Levine.

On paper this should have been a thrilling evening. Unhappily it was not. The excitement was already eviscerated by a distracting and unnecessary two-month media discussion of the Met’s decision to feature Otello without the usual dark makeup, an empty and pandering political gesture trivial to aesthetic considerations, which otherwise received almost no attention. This is not to say that the vast bulk of Sher’s production concept deserved much praise. Perhaps after looking too closely at the intellectual career of Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito, the director decided that it would be a good idea to derive a production concept from the Italian writer’s interest in the plays of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Instead of a colorful Renaissance Cyprus, his Otello strangely unfolds in a bleak nineteenth-century northern European nowhere. Es Devlin’s disappointing sets deliver icy, translucent structures that slide awkwardly around the stage for no apparent reason other than to give the characters shifting places to hide. Catherine Zuber’s stuffy costumes confine everyone but Desdemona – improbably clad in a brilliant red dress much of the time – to boring shades of gray.

It is unclear whether this lack of dynamism was contagious or whether the stage direction lacked inspiration per se. Either way, throughout the evening movement and action languished in an odd torpor. In the opera’s crushing concertante scenes principals and chorus alike were herded into vapid front-facing "park and bark" poses that seemed almost deliberately deprived of energy. Antonenko had a few moments of requisite pique, but too few to deliver a convincing interpretation of the emotional maelstrom that so exquisitely tortures his character. Despite occasionally brilliant high notes, he was not helped by a generally underpowered voice that sounded swallowed by the cavernous Met. As his covert nemesis Iago, Zeljko Lucic drew from a more stentorian reserve, though directorial fiat deprived him of passion. Calculating real-life villains can indeed maintain poise and reserve as they go about their evil deeds, but Verdi’s score and Boito’s libretto lay bare this evil character on such a profoundly emotional level that suppressing Iago’s brazen conceit, arch self-loathing, and pure hatred under a veneer of strict control stood out as one of the evening’s poorer artistic choices. Only Yoncheva really seemed in her element, floating splendid notes and unmarred ascents as she moved through Desdemona’s exquisite portamento passages to well deserved acclaim. The portrayal was not always as innocent as one would expect but registered a strong personal success in an otherwise fallow field. Günther Groissböck was luxuriantly cast in the lesser role of Lodovico.

Nézet-Séguin’s conducting favored a carefully cultivated subtlety over the score’s driving rhythms. The unintended effect was usually languid and listless, however. Such a failure to tap the Met Orchestra’s prowess underserved memories of its rousing performances of Verdi’s score in productions past.

Paul du Quenoy



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