The Met’s new production of Verdi’s Otello makes use of their projection system; the first image on the stage is that of the stormy sea as the people of Cyprus wait for Otello’s ship. These waves reappear in Act IV – stormy seas, stormy feelings, forces of nature, unable to control, etc. etc. The stage set-up is simple, a reflective V that sometimes echoes the waves, sometimes looks merely like reflective metal, but not mirrors – it’s a much dimmer, distorted reflection. There is also a series of clear plastic slices of wall with halls and stairs inside that resemble nothing so much as narrow versions of those glassed-in waiting rooms on train platforms, complete with moderate fog on the inside. They slide around to create the spaces of the palace, garden, bedroom, and so on. Near the end of Act II, they close in for Otello and Iago’s duet, transforming a public area into a bedroom with the same bed used for Desdemona’s room in Act IV – it creates an intimate space for Iago to manipulate Otello about an equally intimate matter. These plastic wall slices also make the lighting more obvious – they glow chilly blue for Iago’s “credo” monologue and turn to red or yellow as Otello plots vengeance. But they’re gone entirely for the last act, in which Desdemona’s bed, prie-dieu and a few chairs are placed alone – looking rather small and vulnerable, much like Desdemona herself – in that larger open space.
The costumes have a drab mid-Victorian vibe, mostly dark grays and blues. Citizens of the island of Cyprus look like inmates of a reform camp, as do the children who gather around Desdemona in Act II. For Act III, the women of the chorus are all in shades of deep blue, purple and red, but muted, dusty versions of these colors; Desdemona stands out in a bright red dress, as she does earlier wearing white or pale pink. When Otello threatens her, she ends up kneeling in a pool of brilliant red.
My reaction to the performance was mixed. One downside of live performances is that not only do you have singers and orchestra in real time without a pause button, you have singers, orchestra and visuals in real time without a pause button, which means that sometimes you lose track of at least one of those three things for a little while; this is, naturally, an excellent reason to go to several different performances of the same show. It might look obsessive; it is not; it is what is called being thorough. But anyway.
As I am not the first to note, anyone singing Otello at the Met is going to conjure up comparisons to Plácido Domingo (or Jon Vickers), which is unfair to anyone who is not Plácido Domingo (or Jon Vickers). I was on the fence about tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. His vibrato was a little wide for my taste, especially early on – and interpretively, there was never a moment when I felt like he was really nailing it. Then again, I’m not sure yet what I want or expect from this character. Probably I have to forget all about the play in order to really do the opera justice.
Željko Lučić’s Iago, though, was a real pleasure to listen to – maybe it’s my preference for baritones over tenors; maybe it was that he got to be the villain, and play to the audience bit during the “I believe in a cruel god” monologue, complete with a jaunty wave before sauntering into one of the plastic wall slices for the next scene – I don’t know what, exactly; but more of whatever that was, please. (Also, I confess to liking that bit of the libretto in Act IV where Otello demands that Iago refute the charges of duplicity made against him and he’s like “No.” And then bolts for the door. Also Emilia’s “You believed Iago?!” line with its strongly implied “are you fucking kidding me?” )
As for Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona, I had moments when I was on board, and other moments when I wasn’t. When I first heard her in Act I, I thought – there is some there there, but somehow I lost interest for a little while after that; this happened at several other points – I’d hear her voice, get interested, and then my interest would fade; I kept expecting a click that didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen until the final act of the opera. There were some good moments in Act III, but it was Act IV, particularly the softer sections of the willow song and prayer, that got my attention; earlier, she’d sung all the notes, but there had been something about the voice that had prevented me from loving what I heard; this dropped away at the end of the opera. That said, Act IV is a little late in the game to really hit your stride, no?