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Desdemona the Glorious

New York
Metropolitan Opera
02/11/2008 -  and February 18, 22, 26; March 1 (matinee), 04, 08
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Renée Fleming (Desdemona), Johan Botha (Otello), Carlo Guelfi (Iago), Wendy White (Emilia), Garrett Sorenson (Cassio), Ronald Naldi (Roderigo), Charles Taylor (Montano), Kristian Sigmundsson (Lodovico), David Won (Herald)
Sharon Thomas (Stage Director), Eleanor Fazan (Choreographer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Michael Yeargan (Set Designer), Elijah Moshinsky (Production)

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Semyon Bychkov (Conductor)

Verdi’s original title for Otello was Iago. Had he heard the opening night of the opera at the Met, I have no doubt he would have named his opera Desdemona. Both Johan Botha and Carlo Guelfi had their merits, but the evening belonged, first and foremost, to Renée Fleming, who is the most stirring Desdemona of our time.

Otello, more than any other Verdi opera, demands great acting as well as singing. Boito contracted Shakespeare’s original so radically that the projection of hate, vengeance, and love has no time for musical subtlety. Ms. Fleming is a fine operatic actress, which meant that her voice was transformed as her fate was created.

In her Act I entrance, she had the passion of a young schoolgirl. Her soprano had almost a bel canto purity. She touched her Otello on the neck and shoulders with chaste adoration; her “Già nella notte” with her lover was both sweet and radiant, spiritual and sensual.

And as Otello turned suspicious and then mad with rage, Ms. Fleming’s voice became darker, the high notes were no longer effortless but imploring, those oh so fluid lines broke. In the music and the body language, incomprehension was projected, and finally near resignation.

So wonderful is Boito’s libretto that even in that Act IV despair, Desdemona fights once more against her own death, and Ms. Fleming’s cries of pain were real anguish. One felt that most rare emotion in the theatre, of praying that Otello could be prevented, that Emilia would rush in before her cue and tell the Moor that he was making a Big Mistake!

Instead, she cried in that great moment, “Ah! Emilia addio”, and in those words this opera became magnificent theatre as much as Verdi’s most magnificent operas.
The sets were huge, grand (more appropriate for Venice than Cyprus), and Semyon Bychkov conducted the orchestra with all the drama necessary, from the first scene onward, with a full-bodied chorus.
The entrance of Johan Botha, the well-reputed South African, did bode great things. He has the look, the stature and, above all, a tenor voice with great projection. But where Ms. Fleming had the nuance and character, Mr. Botha had neither. It was singing with great Verdian vigor, it did not have that much dramatic potential. His third act soliloquy, “Dio mi potevi scagliar”, enumerating his tortures, was beautiful, and the end, when he falls on the ground, was powerful. Yet, this was good voice, not great tragedy.

And now onto Iago. Verdi was right to originally name the opera for him, since he stars with his arias, his cunning, and his sagacity (Iago is certainly the smartest person in the opera, which may be why Boito changed the ending, allowing him to escape).
The role can be compared to Puccini’s Scarpia, and his Credo is like the ending to Tosca’s Act One finale. But Carlo Guelfi’s words were wickeder than his actions. His voice had a peculiar baritone lightness even as he expressed his wickedness (I loved the proto-Darwinian translation at the Met: “I am wicked because I am human, coming from the primeval slime”).

Yet, if one misses the great Iago’s of the past on recordings, one can resist this, the apotheosis of opera, in any form. The drama still stirs, the passion can still overwhelm, and in Ms. Fleming’s Desdemona, one feels the very depths of Shakespearean tragedy.

ERRATUM: Lescaut, the scoundrelly brother of Manon Lescaut, now at the Met, was performed by Dwayne Croft, one of the stalwarts of the company. His name was misspelled in an earlier review, and apologies are offered.

Harry Rolnick



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