Thursday, 19 January 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Otello

17 January 2017

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Calixto Bieito after the Met in New York pulled the plug on his Forza del Destino. His Otello has, however, made its transfer the stage of the Staatsoper in Hamburg in one piece, having been unveiled in in Basel in late 2014. I’m afraid this seemed to be a similar sort of affair to his Forza, though, with a handful of Bieitoisms somewhat half-heartedly applied to Verdi’s final tragic masterpiece.

Calixto Bieito's Otello at Staatsoper Hamburg (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
The main prop—a vast harbour-side crane—will arguably have had greater resonance for the Hamburg audience than for that in landlocked Basel, but otherwise neither it nor the rest of Bieito’s ideas seemed terribly well tailored to Otello (although, I should note, it was all strikingly lit by Michael Bauer). 

The chorus became a kind of semi-imprisoned mob, often stumbling to the front of the stage, in dirty tracksuits and amplified by a few semi-naked extras, to stare us down. Otello was a sort of gangster boss, I think, Iago one of his deputies and Desdemona his moll, understandably miffed at having to appear repeatedly at the dockside in a series of her fanciest outfits.  

Click to enlarge
Otello’s otherness and nobility were nowhere to be seen, so key threads of the drama—the shocking dissonance between his military prowess and his social insecurity, the sources of Iago’s envy—were missing. Desdemona’s whiter-than-white innocence, a pre-requisite for the tragedy, was never even hinted at, while the director’s now standard recourse to misogynistic violence—though still often theatrically powerful—left a slightly bitter taste. 

And the horror of Desdemona’s treatment at the hands of her husband is already so powerfully portrayed in the work that it’s very difficult for a director to try and underline it without actually undercutting it.

In the first three acts, then, this Otello felt like a bit of a hodge podge, markedly short of the conviction that was always such a Bieito trademark, regardless of what else one thought of his decisions (it was unclear whether he’d been on hand to supervise rehearsals). 

Yet, as the drama itself achieves its most searing focus, Act IV was a great deal better. Svetlana Aksenova, a little frayed and unyielding in the earlier acts, came into her own in Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria, delivered with real intensity from a platform half way up the crane: first she threatened to jump off, and then, broken, sank down in desperation.

Nadezhda Karyazina (Emilia, left) and Svetlana Aksenova (Desdemona) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Bieito also had one final trick up his sleeve, as Otello climbed the structure and was then swung out over the orchestra for his final moments. This was a coup, but a pay-off arguably not worth the price of having the whole rest of the drama play out in the thing’s shadow (there was an audible tut when the curtain rose after the interval to reveal nothing had changed on stage; ‘gute Abwechslung,’ someone behind me muttered sarcastically). 

Here, in his final moments, though, was where Marco Berti’s Otello was at his best, his acting honest and heartfelt (an unfortunately unconvincing ‘Urgh!’ as he expired notwithstanding). Before that, his performance was frustrating: loud, unlovely and lumpily phrased. It’s a terrific voice in many ways, trumpety and ringing, just a shame this performance remained musically and dramatically so rudimentary.

Claudio Sgura (Iago) and Marco Berti (Otello) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

There was something a great deal more sophisticated from Claudio Sgura’s liquid-toned and sly Iago, even if the baritone didn’t quite command the stage as the production clearly wanted him to—and he was, perhaps unsurprisingly, out-belted by the force-12 Berti in ‘Si, pel ciel’. 

Markus Nykänen made a strong impression as Cassio, but the chorus occasionally sounded underpowered, and Paolo Carignani’s conducting was often disappointingly lukewarm—not a great deal of fuoco di anything coming from the pit. And ultimately there was far too little fire in the belly of Bieito’s production too: he pulled it back somewhat for the finale, but too much of the rest just felt rehashed and reheated.

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