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Marooned in Pamplona

01/31/2019 -  & February 3, 2019
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Gregory Kunde (Otello), Svetlana Aksenova (Desdemona), Angel Odena (Iago), Francisco Corujo (Cassio), Manuel de Diego (Roderigo), Jeroboám Tejera (Lodovico), Mireia Pintó (Emilia), Gerard Farreras (Montano, A Herald)
Coro lírico de la Asociacion Gayarre Amigos de la Opera (AGAO), Inigo Casalí (chorus master), Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra, Ramón Tebar (conductor)
Alfonso Romero Mora (stage director), Miguel Massip (sets), María Miró (costumes), Philipp Cantag-Lada (videography), Félix Garma (lighting)

(© Inaki Zaldúa)

Pamplona is a town in Navarra, Spain, made famous by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises for the Running of the Bulls each July 6, the day of the town’s patron saint, St-Fermin. However, this charming town of 200,000 has much more to boast about: its refined cuisine and its old town where one can walk for hours admiring old churches, ancient apothecaries, bakeries, cafés and restaurants where local snacks, “pinchos,” are guzzled down with beer or a glass of wine. Pamplona is also a stop on the famed Camino de Santiago. Indeed, pilgrims with a walking stick are not an uncommon sight. For a relatively small town, Pamplona has an active musical life: luthiers, music and dance schools abound. Also impressive is their multi-purpose auditorium with its capacity of 1,200, the Baluarte, where this sold-out production of Verdi’s Otello was presented.

The stage of the Baluarte is perhaps too large for opera productions with limited budgets. For that reason, intelligently conceived video projections of an agitated sea were shown on both side walls and a stormy threatening sky appeared on the ceiling. Somewhat distracting, the projections were nonetheless effective in conveying the danger and anxiety of the onlooking crowd. Brilliant lightning was used to spotlight Desdemona and Iago, on each extremity of the stage, apart from the crowd, showing the former’s despair and anxiety, and the latter’s wishful anticipation of doom. Otello’s ship came safely to shore and the harbour and ship served as sets for all four acts, albeit with mixed results.

Gregory Kunde is the only tenor today who can boast Verdi’s and Rossini’s Otellos as his repertoire. I remember hearing Kunde in my home city of Montreal singing a delightfully virtuosic Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani. Rarely has a tenor had such a trajectory from light lyric bel canto tenore d’agilità to dramatic tenor. He has managed this long journey with care and intelligence. His voice showed no strain as Otello, possibly Verdi’s most challenging tenor role. Moreover, his bel canto training enabled him to have elegant phrasing and nuanced expression. Dramatically, he impressed with his unpredictablity in the Act 3 duet, “Dio ti giocondi,” convincingly recoiling from rage to tenderness. Even for those familiar with the opera and its libretto, his shifting mood kept us on the edge. He was immensely touching in the final scene: his phrasing of “E tu? ... come sei pallida! e stanca e muta e bella” was masterful.

Svetlana Aksenova’s Desdemona was a revelation. The Russian soprano is a true lirico spinto with amazing range, ease in high notes and rarest of all, her voice has natural trills. In contrast to the hordes of young, well trained yet dull singers, her beautiful timbre is easily recognizable within a couple of seconds. This is a soprano I yearn to hear as Trovatore’s Leonora, Eugene Onegin’s Tatiana or Faust’s Marguerite. Moreover, her Italian diction is impeccable. She opted not to over-emphasize certain phrases that others often do for dramatic effect. Nonetheless, this underplaying was most effective, for it no longer felt like stylized emotions, but naturally interiorized ones. Her chemistry with Kunde was evident, especially during the Act 1 duet “Gia nella notte densa!” In part, the clever stage directions helped: Otello and Desdemona acted like newlyweds, with the Moor bashfully lustful and Desdemona coquettish. During the duet, one could sense rising sexual tension. By the end of the duet, one could feel bliss.

Angel Odena has the voice for Iago, that unsympathetic dry baritone that is perfect for villains. Unfortunately, his phrasing and acting was often exaggerated, rendering Iago’s evil nature almost comical. Nonetheless, some lines were brilliantly enunciated and sung, such as “E poi? La Morte è il Nulla.” This flawed choice wasn’t entirely his own, but the stage director’s as well. In his famous scene, “Credo in un dio crudel,” he used a knife to dismount a statue of Christ from the cross. Does this gratuitous sabotage add to the characterization? Iago’s evil is not that puerile, it is pure cynicism.

The young Francisco Corujo’s Cassio seemed under-rehearsed, both vocally and dramatically. Despite a pleasant light tenor voice, he failed to convince as the disgraced captain; baleful, yet still a handsome and proud nobleman. He acted more like a recruit than the noble Venetian who personally knew Desdemona before she married Otello and is significant enough to be named by La Serenissima as Otello’s successor on Cyprus. On occasion, his small voice was pushed to its limits and the phrasing was muddled.

The minor characters were effective, especially Jeroboám Tejera’s Lodovico, whose dark basso cantante had enough gravitas to convey Venice’s authority as well as his noble station. Mireia Pintó’s Emilia was a convincing companion to Desdemona and battered wife to Iago. The chorus was overall good except towards the end of the third act. They seemed lost after Otello publicly humiliated Desdemona but were on point for the third act’s finale. Ramón Tebar’s tempi were often too slow, especially in Iago’s “Credo,” possibly slowing down to support the baritone. The costumes were simple but effective. They could pass for sixteenth century Venetian, except for Emilia, who wore a bonnet that made her look eminently Victorian. The ensuing fight that saw Cassio getting drunk was well staged.

The idea of Desdemona’s final act prayer taking place in the harbour was disconcerting. Things got worse with the choice of lighting: yellow, green and blue made the stage look at best like a Fauvist painting and at worst like a run-down tropical resort. Desdemona started her “Ave Maria” lighting votives on the harbourfront, but some were eventually raised midway through her prayer, creating an unnecessary distraction. Desdemona’s strangulation was realistic, but more akin to an action movie than a grand theatrical scene. Emilia’s sitting prostrate after realizing Desdemona’s murder was both realistic and touching. She only stood after Otello stabbed himself. The fact that Otello’s ship remained the centrepiece throughout the opera was nor aesthetically appealing. A stylized effigy of a ship, it looked more like a marooned ship than the vessel of a victorious warrior. The intimacy of Desdemona’s bedroom is essential to show her at her most intimate and fragile. To be strangled in the harbour was too pathetic for the innocent noblewoman; she deserved more.

Ossama el Naggar



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