This is second installment in my highly popular “Opera” series. Recall that Metropolitan Opera launched their 10th season of “Live in HD” two weeks ago, with Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, and I reviewed it here. Yesterday’s offering was also Verdi, this time his magnificent later work”Otello”.
An elderly Giuseppe Verdi came out of retirement to write Otello (English spelling “Othello”), and it is literally his most mature work. Opera connoisseurs know that the opera places very high vocal demands on the three leads, it is definitely not a piece for rookies. Fortunately, the Met had three awesome leads on hand, who each fulfilled his or her task amazingly, and just by coincidence all three leads have a Baltic or Slavic ethnic background.
The role of the jealous Moor was sung by husky, bushy-haired Latvian tenor Aleksandrs (“Sasha”) Antoņenko. Be aware that the Met made a strategic decision earlier this season to not put Sasha in blackface for the role. Which was probably a wise choice, given the American racial context, although they could have maybe applied a bit of tanning lotion to his face. To make him look more… well… Moorish. Because it was kind of funny when Otello was reproaching Desdemona with such lines as: “Is it my Moorish countenance which repulses you?” To which she could have replied: “Not at all, honey, it’s just that Latvian mug and pasty complexion of yours.”
Speaking of Desdemona: The role was sung by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, and it unbelievable that this is her first Desdemona on the stage, because she absolutely OWNED the part. In a backstage interview, Sonya revealed her psychological preparation to sing this difficult role: In her interpretation, Desdemona is not a passive victim; she is a proud Italian noblelady. If, in the end, she allows Otello to murder her without resistance, it more from pride and stoicism befitting a noble lady of her rank; than from simple masochism.
Yoncheva showed her playful side at the curtain call. Otello has just murdered his wife and then killed himself; half of the audience (the female half) are in tears (I’m not kidding: the cameras panning the audience at this moment show many ladies in the audience with their handkerchiefs out, dabbing at their eyes). The curtain lowers, then rises again. This is the moment when the actors must come out and prove to the audience that they are still alive, that it was all just make-believe. (Unless the show happens to be I Pagliacci, it goes without saying.)
Sasha and Sonya strode out first, regally, hand in hand, and bowed to the audience. Sasha kissed Sonya’s hand gallantly. And then Sonya did a funny thing: She glared at Sasha and made a mock-strangle-you motion with her hands. As if to say, “That wasn’t very nice, what you did to me.” I’ve said it before: Elite opera singers are some of the wittiest people on the planet. The backstage interviews, one of the wonderful bennies of the “Met Live” series, give you a real glimpse into these fantastic personalities.
And now we get to the villain of the piece, Otello’s malicious and disloyal Ensign Iago. The role of Iago was sung by seasoned Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who gets to play some of opera’s greatest villains. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago’s motives can be a bit murky at times; but fortunately Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito fixed that problem, in his version of the story, by providing Iago with a clear motive for his evil deeds. And, in the end, it is mostly about office politics:
In the Cyprus world in which these characters dwell, they are all subject to Il Doge, the “Lion of Venice”. The Doge determines even the local pecking order: Otello is at the top, as Governor-General of the island of Cyprus. Otello’s job description includes fighting the Turks at sea, so he must also be a ship’s Admiral, when required. On land, Otello lives in a glass palace with his new bride, Desdemona. His power is great, but not unlimited. He has some limited rights to appoint his staff (with the proviso that Il Doge can overrule any of his staffing decisions). This is where Otello makes his fateful decision to appoint Cassio as his second-in-command, with the rank of “Captain”. [Remember, this is a NAVAL culture, so Captain is a much higher rank than it sounds.] Iago was bucking for the Captain job, but got passed over for promotion, and remains a lowly Ensign, forced to bow and scrape to Cassio, the man he despises. This is the source of about 90% of Iago’s discontent. The other 10% being his nihilistic philosophy in general, which he lays out in his famous “Credo” aria (“This is what I believe”):
Iago’s plan is both complicated and brilliant at the same time: He plots to do away with all his enemies at once, in one fell swoop remove all obstacles in the way of his promotion; I think his ultimate goal is to take Otello’s job as Governor-General of Cyprus. But first he must do away with both Otello and Cassio. To accomplish this, he sets up a situation which makes it look like Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. This will incite the jealous Moor to kill both bride and Cassio. Which will end up getting Otello arrested and disgraced; and nobody else in the way for Iago’s rise to power. It’s a well-laid plan, and it would have worked too, Iago would have totally gotten away with it, if not for that pesky mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who played Iago’s long-suffering wife, Emilia.
In the end it is Emilia who blows the whistle on hubby and puts an end to this madness. But not before Otello has already strangled Desdemona. If only Emilia had spoken up just five minutes earlier, then everything would have been okay!
Like all “Met Live” broadcasts, this show had a host, this time around it was African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens. I saw Owens a couple of seasons back, as Alberich the Dwarf in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. And I must say that, bar none, Owens was the best Alberich I ever saw. His passionate interpretation made you actually feel for the dwarf: You felt his colossal anguish and sense of bitter injustice, at having his precious Ring taken from him so brutally by the Father of the Gods.
As host, Owens is not as dynamic as his onstage persona. He is so tense, and speaks through clenched teeth, it’s like he is about to have a seizure, and you worry that any moment his huge magnificent head will explode.
Nonetheless, it is always a treat to see Owens, in any capacity whatsoever. Even if he was just reading the phone book out loud.
And I will end my review by commenting on the complicated technology which allows the Metropolitan Opera to present these live broadcasts into IMAX movie theaters throughout the U.S. and even some other countries. It’s not just about the streaming HD and the sound quality, there is a lot more to it.
During the intermission, we viewers were treated to a “behind the scenes” look at the “behind the scenes”. Going two levels deep into the recursion, as it were.
We were shown the team of Technical Directors, led by a man named Gary Halvorson. Working with up to 12 movie cameras, including a sliding one on a “robotic dolly” positioned just inches above the head of the Concertmeister (=First Violinist) in the pit, the technical team sit in their space-age console room and push buttons which cut from camera to camera. This is how we get the close-ups and camera angles which, along with the subtitles, draw us intimately into the story. It’s like editing a movie, but in real time, with no room for error!
All of this technology, and this project in general, costs a lot of money, and is supported partially by big-name philanthropists. I think that in the future other major opera theaters, such as the Bolshoi, will emulate and start to do this too. Bringing this culture to the masses – is a good thing!
Postscript: The Forgotten Manuscript
Ah, it has just come to my attention! Apparently Shakespeare penned an ALT-Ending, a more happy ending, to his “Othello”, which goes something like this:
As the Chambermaid Emilia is tucking Desdemona into bed that night, Desdemona keeps fussing that her husband, Otello, will probably come into the bedchamber, at any moment, to kill her. “Perhaps,” Desdemona murmurs tearfully, “I was too outspoken when I kept bugging him about pardoning Cassio.”
“He does seem to have a bee in his bonnet about that nice Mr. Cassio,” Emilia agrees. Suddenly she has a thought: “Dessy, why don’t you hide under the bed?”
“I can’t do that, Emilia. I am a proud, stoic Italian noblewoman. I must accept my fate and allow him to strangle or stab me, whichever violent method of his choice. Besides, you know how the rules work in our Middle-Ages culture: My husband, ugly Moor that he be, is my Lord and Master. He can do to me whatever he pleases, even kill me.”
“Fine, deary,” coos Emilia. “Just drink this goblet of water before you fall asleep.” But then secretly slips a mickey into Desdemona’s cup. With Dessy knocked out, Emilia hides her mistress under the bed, then she herself slips into the bed, pulling the covers over her head. She is willing to take Desdemona’s place, in death. That’s just how damn loyal she is.
Otello enters the bedchamber, all anguished and murdery. He starts to strangle the sleeping figure in the bed, but stops when he thinks he needs to cop one last kiss from her:
Oh, balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee
And love thee after. (kissing her) One more, and that’s the last.
This is when Otello discovers that it is Emilia’s balmy breath under the blankets. He roars with rage, like the “Lion of Cyprus ” that his loyal subjects call him. A frightened Emilia leaps out of the bed, with Otello’s handprints all over her windpipe.
Fortunately, this interruption of just a couple of minutes is enough to save Desdemona’s life. Because it is at that very moment that Cassio bursts into the bedchamber, waving his sword about frantically. Everybody else immediately comes crowding into Otello’s bedchamber, as if this was the stateroom in the Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera”:
Il Doge, Iago, Montano, the sailors of the fleet, half the population of Cyprus, comes crowding into the bedroom.
Cassio announces that he has just murdered Roderigo. Everybody cheers. (Nobody liked Roderigo.)
Otello confronts Cassio about his supposed affair with his wife. The Moor is still raging on about that damned handkerchief, but Emilia finally manages to get a word in edgewise and explain to him that Iago stole the handkerchief all along, and then planted it in Cassio’s quarters. Seeing that the gig is up, Iago takes a powder and manages to elude capture. Otello is overcome with remorse and relief. At that moment, a very doped-up Desdemona crawls out from under the bed. Otello embraces her tenderly and apologizes for being such an asshole.
Il Doge then announces pompously that Otello must return to Venice; the ship sails tomorrow. Cassio is promoted to Otello’s old job. Because he was such a prick, Otello will be demoted to Ensign. Otello is okay with that, so long as he can have his darling Desdemona at his side.
Desdemona: “Well, er, honey, about that….”
Desdemona has finally realized that Otello is not the boyfriend she wanted. He is going to be jealous of everybody she ever talks to. This whole incident with Cassio was just a warning. It is bound to happen again. A man like that will never change. Therefore, Desdemona decides to stay on Cyprus.
“We’ll just be friends from now on,” she tells the Moor. “Long distance friends. Please stay in touch.”