Thursday, 2 March 2017

Semperoper Dresden: Otello

26 February

Only a couple of days after this performance, the new season at the Semperoper was announced, in which Christian Thielemann is to conduct not a single of the new productions. He’s busy with plenty of Wagner (there are a couple of Rings), as well as a starrily cast Tosca, but it might seem surprising, after this Otello and a Simon Boccanegra a few seasons back, that he wouldn’t have bagsied next season’s new Forza del Destino for himself (that goes to Mark Wigglesworth).

Sofia Pintzu ('Ein Engel') in the Semperoper's Otello (Photo © Forster)

That said, this performance suggested that Forza might not be quite up his Straße these days. While he brought an appropriate dark grandeur to Boccanegra and certain moments in Otello, the more visceral nature of the latter’s drama seemed on occasion to elude him.

The playing of the Staatskapelle gloried in the band’s characteristic cushioned sheen, and Thielemann can elicit some thrilling edge and bite from them too—and certain key orchestral outbursts were stunning in their power. But it seemed like the conductor also felt the need to place several episodes of moment by moment drama within longer quasi-symphonic arcs: the results were always interesting, but not always compelling.

Perhaps things would have worked more powerfully had the production, making its Dresden debut after being unveiled at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, been more interested in offering us red-blooded drama too. 

Instead, as tends to be the case in my experience of their work, the team of Vincent Boussard (director), Vincent Lemaire (sets) and Christian Lacroix (costumes) offered something stylish but slightly anonymous: period-with-a-modern-twist costumes, shiny dark floor, minimal boxy sets and a recurring motif of wafting material (a reference both to the sail mentioned in the opening chorus and Desdemona’s handkerchief) both on stage and in the atmospheric if slightly screensaverish video projections.  

We also had the dubious bonus of an ‘angel’ (played by the actress Sofia Pintzou), who stalked the stage throughout much of the evening, and whose black wings started to billow smoke and flame up at the big orchestral outburst ahead of ‘Dio! mi potevi’. 

Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona), Sofia Pintzu (Angel) and Stephen Gould (Otello) (Photo © Forster)

This allowed for some impressive images, but also seemed symptomatic of a staging that felt weirdly reluctant to get its hands dirty with this most powerful and direct of dramas, in which we had little sense of where we were, who the main characters were, why they were acting in the way they did and, ultimately, why we should really care about them.

Stephen Gould (Otello), Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona)
& Andrzej Dobber (Iago) (Photo © Forster)
This effect was somewhat exacerbated by a cast that never really coalesced. The casting of Stephen Gould as Otello seemed to take us back to an earlier age where Tristans and Siegfrieds were regulars in this role, but also demonstrated that its challenges are very different from those of Wagner. Gould was stretched at the extremes and his tone was exposed as short on sap and the necessary trumpety squillo. He has the stamina, though, and saved the best till last in a moving death scene. 

Andrzej Dobber was a perfectly decent Iago, but the combination of his reluctance to really use the words and a smooth, rather benign timbre held the characterization back. 

Dorothea Röschmann was an unusually forthright, strong-willed Desdemona right from the start, and certainly no mere shining paragon of female virtue and purity (somewhat in contravention of Verdi’s own conception of the role). There a couple of rough-edged moments, but her Willow Song and Ave Maria were a highlight—it’s just a shame that the characterization was left isolated within the production as a whole.

The singers making up the rest of the cast, including Antonio Poli’s mellifluous and pleasingly bright-toned Cassio, Georg Zeppenfeld’s authoritative Lodovico and Christa Mayer’s moving Emilia, were excellent. There was an awful lot of quality on show, then, but this was an Otello that never really caught fire. 

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