Royal Opera House ★★★★★
FEW role debuts have been anticipated with such tongue-lolling excitement as that of superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Otello.
Signers who can conquer this Everest of a role are few and far between. It demands huge amounts of Wagnerian power combined with Italianate passion and tenderness — and it helps if the singer can portray all the psychological traits of a complete mental breakdown with detail and honesty too. So, not much to ask then.
But the ranks of the truly great Otellos have now been swollen by Kaufmann, who appears in Keith Warner’s new production of Verdi’s opera at Covent Garden. His ringing top notes blast out heroically, his love duet with Desdemona is sublimely beautiful and caressing, and his acting is sensationally vivid. The looks of shock and disbelief, the icy coolness, the tortured nobility… this is a gripping and heartbreaking portrayal of disintegration.
Warner’s claustrophobic and intense production — with its gorgeously sumptuous period-style costumes by Kaspar Glarner — offers a perfect vehicle for the tenor. He sets the action in a dark, walled box which opens at the back and sides (designer Boris Kudlička) to reveal several eye-popping coups de théâtre which it would be churlish to spoil, and he presents the story with exemplary clarity. His decision not to darken Kaufmann’s skin, but instead to present his Moorishness as a kind of social and psychological alienation, is an excellent way of handling the ‘blacking up’ dilemma of the piece too.
The rest of the cast are from the topmost of the top drawers. Maria Agresta (Desdemona) offers a warm, velvety-rich sound in her middle register which matches Kaufmann’s baritonal power-notes beautifully, Marco Vratogna (Iago) sings up a thrilling storm of hatred and malevolence, and Frédéric Antoun makes a meltingly lyrical Cassio. With a chorus on top form, and Antonio Pappano’s conducting as vivid and as full of telling details as Kaufmann’s performance, the tragic tale hits every cathartic nail on the head. A Royal Opera triumph.
On June 28, the performance is broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and around the world. See roh.org.uk/cinemas for details.