On this occasion, though, neither the set (by Jon Morrell)—moveable blocks of imposing, run-down grandeur with hints of a rubble-strewn wasteland beyond—nor, more broadly, the setting seemed much suited to the work in hand. For a start, as I understand it, Otello is primarily about emotional battles being fought once military battles have been won: the attendant peace and lack of activity making for the idle minds that Iago’s devil can exploit; the delineation between Otello’s nobility on the battlefield and his emotional immaturity and insecurity off it is at the heart of the drama. Here he stumbled out of battle less victorious than already broken, and seemed strangely unconcerned by the chaos that—Alden's almost dystopian setting suggested—persisted around him. His essential otherness, meanwhile, seems to insist entirely of a certain awkwardness in his manner.
Disconsolate and nervy, Skelton's Otello was an unconvincing military leader, and, as a result, his fall from grace lost much of its wider resonance. (Was that why ‘Ora e per sempre addio’ was sluggish and internalised?) Without any initial composure, this Otello had nowhere to go, resorting to strange contortions, furniture throwing and the like. Similarly, with all the loss of pomp and grandeur surrounding him, his fall lost context; and I’m not entirely sure what was being said by having the chorus in Act 3 appear as regulation uptight-community scowlers and tutters—were they to be understood as somehow complicit in Otello’s downfall? Although they play an important role (and the ENO chorus was here on terrific form), this mass is surely there more to set the scene for the drama than to participate in it.
|Stuart Skelton in ENO's new Otello (photo: Alastair Muir)|
Funnily enough, it was Leah Crocetto's Desdemona (the character's name incidentally retaining its stress, as in Italian, on the second 'e') who brought some vocal edge to proceedings. The American soprano sang the role in a big, vibrant voice that could be exciting, even if it made for a distinctly unangelic heroine. She seemed the least comfortable with singing in English, though, and, like her husband, was robbed of nobility by the production—particularly in a final act that couldn't make up its mind between realism and stylisation. Allan Clayton was excellent as a Cassio reduced, after his initial fall, to an alcoholic. As, respectively, a half-fop, half-spiv Roderigo and a tweed-clad, bespectacled Emilia, Peter Van Hulle and Pamela Helen Stephen could easily have wandered in from the nightmarish Borough of Alden's Grimes.
The qualities one expects from Edward Gardner were there in abundance. There was precision and conviction in his conducting, and and a very high standard of execution from an ENO orchestra that has improved immeasurably during his tenure. But, like the production, it was a reading of Verdi's score that seemed to lose the depth, delicacy and grandeur, and which was also short on nuance at times (the introduction to Act 4 struck me as rather unloving). Although this team always brings a certain high standard to what it does, on this occasion I couldn't but feel disappointed by the result—an Otello that, worryingly, failed to leave me as moved, let alone poleaxed, as it should.
[Finally, if you'll excuse me, a plug for the new ENO/Overture Guide to 'Otello', for which I wrote a performance history. It's currently available only in the Coliseum foyer before the shows, and in the Royal Opera House shop, but will be available from the usual other outlets soon.]