Keith Warner makes his return to the Royal Opera House, directing Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello, with visual and musical intricacy. Based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, Warner’s production accentuates the calamitous effects of jealousy and love. The musicality of the entire opera was exceptional, with the lead actors, choir and the accompanying orchestra performing with impressive fullness. This unique interpretation of the four-act opera proved an audiovisual treasure for the audience.
The opera narrates the glorious rise and monstrous fall of the Moorish general, Otello, opening with a celebratory moment: Otello’s heroic victory against his enemies. Upon his return, the valorous protagonist shares an intimate scene with his wife, Desdemona. However, their domestic peace does not last long, as the Machiavellian villain Iago orchestrates a diabolical series of conflicts between characters. Ultimately, jealousy becomes Otello’s nemesis, as he kills both himself and his wife in the opera's final scene.
Ermonela Jaho as Desdemona in Otello (C) ROH 2019. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
The choral and musical aspects of the production were remarkable, with the cast each encapsulating their characters' distinct personae. Gregory Kunde’s orotund tones embraced masculinity, and the progressively violent character of Otello. Carlos Álvarez’s frequent modulations served as an extension of Iago’s scheming and dictatorial personality, while Ermonela Jaho offset the two with her effortlessly silvery voice. The hints of softness heard in her phrasing reinforced the pitiful nature of Desdemona’s eventual death. William Spaulding's directing efforts were admirable alongside those of conductor Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera Chorus and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, collectively culminating in a satisfying richness.
Thoughtful stagecraft was another highlight: the mobile walls on stage illuminated the different worlds of war, domesticity, love and deception that play into Otello's eventual fall. Iago’s symbolic manipulation of their movement emphasised his seeming omnipotence, particularly his influence over characters’ fates and misfortunes. The walls' intricately detailed Arabic windows, meanwhile, served as a nod to Otello's Moorish roots, a theme that was otherwise heavily underplayed in comparison to the original Shakespearean play. Otello’s insecurity is still hinted at, however, owing to his identity as a racial outcast in a largely white society.
Ermonela Jaho as Desdemona and Carlos Alvarez as Iago in Otello (C) ROH 2019. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore
Although it is by no means necessary, those who are aware of Shakespeare’s original tragedy may find the subtle thematic and plot differences with this opera particularly fascinating. A pleasure to the ears, the approximately three-hour production immerses the audience in a dramatic expedition of romance, jealousy and doubt.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor