It was not one of the best evenings I have spent at the Liceu, and it hurts me to say so. I have so much respect for the institution and its courage and enterprise in presenting interesting, often rarely performed works, even if there is no guarantee that they will bring in the crowds. So, I was excited when I read the 2015-2016 programme and saw that they were offering two versions of Otello: a full-dress performance of the enormously popular Verdi opera and a concert version of the one by Rossini, which is almost never performed and can be found only on rare recordings.
Alas, on opening night of the Verdi Otello it was doubly disappointing to be confronted with a seriously flawed production. The only blame that the Liceu bears is that they put their faith in the Deutsche Oper and the stage director Andreas Kriegenburg and presented their dismal version of the usually magnificent work. The other misfortune was that both the originally scheduled Otello and Desdemona pulled out and had to be replaced. Ermonela Jaho took over the role of Desdemona and José Cura, who has sung several times before at the Liceu, sang Otello. Jaho’s crescendos were often sumptuous, but at times she sank below the level of the orchestra. Cura was adequate but not exciting.
Having said that, however, it really is almost impossible to say whether their performances were, in fact, excellent or merely adequate, because the staging interfered so grossly. The current trend of robbing an opera of its grandeur and dignity was carried to an extreme in this production. Where there could have been a palace, noble robes and impressive demeanor suited to the tragic eloquence of both music and libretto, there was a down-market shambles. Except for two brief (and very important) interludes at the end of the first and last acts, when Otello and Desdemona were alone in their bedchamber, a simple, brightly illuminated corner on the left of a darkened stage, the singers and their performances were crushed by a superfluity of scenery and people in constant motion for no rational reason.
The opening crowd scene, when the Cypriots excitedly await the return of their hero warrior and fear that his boat may be lost in a dramatic (particularly musically dramatic) storm, is set in what appears to be a slumlike six-storey public housing project. The background writhes with activity on every level, as people carry out their daily lives or peer to see what is happening.
Whatever they did, there were too many of them, moving much too much. Apart from the fact that they were constantly drawing all attention away from the soloists below, the main characters really had no space designated for them. A tacky, second-hand-looking desk on the left, in a courtyard-like space filled with attention-deflecting children, served as the great Otello’s office. On the other side of the stage, two arm-chairs and a coffee table, all unworthy of Starbucks, comprised the plotting location for Iago and whoever was his current target. The clothing, the scenery, the furniture were all grey and lackluster. Otello looked like a Kentucky farmer in his ill-fitting trousers and suspenders, highly unconvincing as a love-interest. The secondary characters such as Roderigo, Cassio and Lodovico, were hard to discern separately because of their drab uniforms and constant need to battle for attention. In general, because of all the unnecessary activity, especially the herd of children, it was very hard to concentrate on the singing, which tended to seem far away and almost secondary to the visual antics.
The sad part of all this is that Otello is one of Verdi’s masterpieces. It came late in life, and rather unwillingly, since he felt it was time to lay down his pen, and it differs strongly from his earlier works in that it has a continuous flow of music rather than recitative/aria alternation. Despite the composer’s asserted dislike of German music, his last works (especially Otello and the Requiem) seem to have been quite strongly influenced by Wagner, which, for me, is what makes them grandiose. But this was lost in the current production.
The Rossini version of the story will be performed in concert version on February 3th and 6th. I would urge any opera lover not to be deterred by this sad review and get tickets, if possible, because the odds are (given Liceu standards generally) that it will be well worth hearing, and also, that we are not likely to have the opportunity soon again.