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Kirov Opera: Otello Otellevich

Jago: Io non sono che un critico.
A. Boito, libretto of Otello
After The Queen of Spades, reviewed yesterday, the second opera that the Mariinsky Theater has brought from St. Petersburg to the Kennedy Center was Otello. The other late Verdi masterpiece, Falstaff, was a disappointment last year, and this updated production left much to be desired visually but had some fine singing and one major discovery. Just as with the Kirov's Falstaff, the problem with stage director Vasily Barkhatov's approach in this new production (premiered in St. Petersburg only last month) is that he did not trust Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito. At this point in his career, Verdi's dramatic instincts were fully formed and no detail in the libretto or score is unintended or out of place. Directors who interfere too much with that carefully wrought plan run the risk of ultimately diminishing the work rather than simply making it new.

Lighthouse in the harbor of Xania, Crete
The setting of the action has been updated to around the time of the opera's premiere, with somber gray and black suits and funereal black attire for the chorus women (costumes by Maria Danilova). For the first two acts, the stage was dominated by an enormous lighthouse (sets by Zinovy Margolin), emitting a beam of painfully bright light during the opening storm scene and guiding Otello's ship into the harbor. There was no vista of the sea, and the chorus seemed to be facing the sea when they faced the audience. The direction first spoiled perhaps the greatest entrance in all of opera when Otello crowd-surfed into the scene, from behind the chorus and not from the sea, landing on his feet long before his memorable line "Esultate!" Instead of a celebratory bonfire ("Fuoco di gioia!," translated in the supertitles only as "Time for rejoicing"), there was a brief spray of confetti, which made the entire choral scene, with words specifically about fire's warming strength, into nonsense. Naturally, the 15th-century references to swords ("Abbasso le spade!") also had to be mistranslated in the supertitles.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Kirov's 'Otello,' In One Fell Swoop (Washington Post, December 11)

T. L. Ponick, Powerful voices propel 'Otello' (Washington Times, December 11)

Karren LaLonde Alenier, Otello & the Lighthouse (The Dressing, December 12)
Worse still was the choral scene around Desdemona in Act II, with the chorus completely off stage. That decision saved some money on chorus costumes, but instead of Otello's wife appearing as the soul of innocence itself, surrounded by children offering her flowers and singing to her, Desdemona, on stage, did not even appear to acknowledge the music, as if it were being piped into Otello's makeshift office like muzak. The choreography and acting direction regularly played against the drive of the narrative and the score. At the end of Act III, Jago defiantly and outrageously wonders what can prevent him from placing his heel on the forehead of the apoplectic Otello, only to back away meekly from the Moor as a crowd of children surround him. By the opera's devastating conclusion, it was no surprise to see Desdemona strangled not in her bed, where she began the final scene, but at the top of the lighthouse, which appeared in closeup. Falling unconscious, Desdemona had to slouch against the wall to be seen, only to be dragged off unceremoniously by the dying Otello. Then a final flash of light from the lighthouse shattered the beauty of the scene and deflated the tragedy of Verdi's score.

The second cast on Wednesday night's performance was a mixed bag, mostly good rather than great. Baritone Edem Umerov was in pretty good voice, with plenty of snarl as Jago, but just as he did as Falstaff last year, he was perpetually ahead of or behind the beat (the Act I brindisi was all over the place, complicated by an overfast tempo), with panicky confusion often written on his face. Tenor Avgust Amonov was a gangling and oddly benign Otello, vocally and dramatically. The heroic passages never quite had the ring to thrill the ears and his high piano sound was not particularly sweet. Among the supporting cast, nice sounds came from the youthful and appealing Cassio of Sergey Semishkur.

Irina Mataeva, sopranoAs is often the case with the Kirov Opera, the announced cast list underwent some last-minute changes, with one extremely pleasing result, the chance to hear soprano Irina Mataeva (shown at left), who will be joining conductor Valery Gergiev on the shuttle to New York, where she will sing Natasha in the Met's production of War and Peace on Saturday. A beautiful, dark-featured woman with attractive poise on stage, Mataeva began the evening seemingly on only one cylinder, her over-active vibrato pinching slightly flat at times. By the second act, as Otello began to unravel, she drew all attention to herself by her sympathetic presence. Although a few crucial peak notes were not quite there in Mataeva's voice, her Willow Song and Ave Maria scene were paragons of fragility and purity. Gergiev coaxed a luscious web of sound from his Kirov Orchestra for those lovely moments of the score, while his more bombastic impulses got the better of him in the louder scenes like the storm and the brindisi in Act I, when chorus, soloists, and orchestra were at times noticeably disjointed. Overall, this Otello ranked beneath the Kirov's Queen of Spades, but Mataeva's performance was a redeeming factor.

There is only one remaining performance of Otello, on Sunday afternoon (December 16, 3 pm). There is no way to know who will sing Desdemona. Full-time students are eligible to buy $25 tickets to the Sunday performance, through the Attend! program.

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