There has been a fatuous new trend for opera audiences to boo villainous characters at the curtain calls, as though they were at Mother Goose. But the ecstatic reception for Vratogna on opening night gave voice to a house-wide admiration for this hardworking singer who only has to be on stage to be the centre of attention. From his first threatening gesture, his Iago is evil incarnate. But you don't have to look far in the world to see devious men with whom others would like to share a pint. With a bucolic tinge to the voice that eases Iago into common company and a chill in his deeply creepy creed of hate, every (very fine) note from Vratogna defines his chameleon character.
Boos, curiously, perversely, were saved for the team behind this impressive, visually striking, new production. Some ninny clearly could not cope with mixed-history costumes straddling Elizabethan, Jacobean and indeterminate times. Or a set of pierced panels that references Moorish tracery, stained glass leading and the conspiratorial niches of ancient castles, Have they not noticed that Shakespeare is a man for all seasons?
Covent Garden's last Otello, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, was very traditional. This production, designed by Boris Kudlička with costumes by Kaspar Glarner, understands that the world is not singular, but shot through with and enriched by different cultures, and that jealousy rears up at any time, everywhere.
There's no insulting make-up for Kaufmann in the title role, his difference coming entirely from within, but opera-lovers will wrangle long and hard about this interpretation. For me, the great vanquisher, fresh from his slightly silly and remarkably unscathed Pirates of Penzance galleon – the piece opens with one of the most terrifying storms in all music – is never as strong as his conniving sidekick, and his fall from nobility to disgrace therefore cushioned.
Visually, he is tremendous, nippy as the fighter he is, not stuffed like a sofa, and his gait quickly descends from the proud stride to the degraded crawl that Vratogna's Iago has perfected over years of low behaviour. But the voice is cracked and hollow from the start, and so it is harder to hear Otello's disintegration. If anything, perversely, he seemed to grow in strength with moral decline, which is not quite the point.
His Desdemona, wrongly accused to infidelity with the striking Cassio of Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun, is Italian soprano Maria Agresta, who recently sang Violetta in La Traviata. (German soprano Dorothea Röschmann is to sing some performances.) Agresta's is an elegant performance that gives the military man a suitably strong, not wispy, counterpart, and the phrasing is beautiful. Maybe she should be leading the troops.
Keith Warner, directing, points up the polarities of the piece with relish: Iago's nasty manifesto versus Desdemona's prayer; proud Desdemona watching the return of Otello from a high vantage point versus Otello spying down on her from above. And music director Sir
Antonio Pappano, conducting for the first time since hinting that his days at Covent Garden are numbered ('I will certainly have conducted enough operas at Covent Garden by 2020', he tells the Times), sets too this great Italian score with customary vigour.
If the orchestra of the Royal Opera House was occasionally just too loud – it was a strain to hear Kaufmann at times – it didn't bother the others. And conversely, while the chorus was a stirring form, a bit less top and a bit more from the bottom end wouldn't have gone amiss.
In smaller roles, Korean bass In Sung Sim as the majestic Lodovico bodes well for a mighty Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte next year, and the up-and-coming South African bass is impressive as Montano.
Click here for returns. The performance on 24 June is shown live in cinemas all over London: click here for more details of the relay.
|What||Otello review, Royal Opera House|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
21 Jun 17 – 15 Jul 17, nine performances; 7pm start on 24 June
|Price||£13 - £270|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|