Last night I went to the splendid Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see the production of Verdi’s Otello currently being staged by Welsh National Opera. The Opera is of course based on Shakespeare’s play Othello; I never met an Italian who could pronounce “th” properly, which presumably explains the change in spelling.
The Wales Millennium Centre is an excellent venue for Opera, both because it has very comfortable seats (quite necessary for operas of three hours’ duration, like Otello) and is also quite heavily subsidised. Last night’s tickets were about a quarter of the price you would expect to pay for the stalls at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Unfortunately the centre is currently having financial problems, which I hope can be resolved.
I know many music experts – including Rob Cowan, who I listen to every morning on BBC Radio 3 – regard Otello as not only Verdi’s greatest masterpiece, but also the high point of all Italian grand opera. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it is certainly a compelling work both musically and dramatically. Watching last night’s performance it struck me how well theatrical tragedies suit adaption to the operatic form. The whole point of a tragedy is that the fall is inevitable. The hero contains within himself the seeds of his own destruction which, in the case of Otello is born of his uncontrollable jealousy.
But in order to have its full effect on the audience there must be time for the depth of impending calamity to eat into the audience. The pace of opera fits very well with this requirement. Building slowly but inexorably to the gut-wrenching climax, the best Opera achieves the kind of intensity that in Sport you can only get with Test cricket.
Verdi wrote this Opera in 1887 (when he was 74) and it represented a glorious return from self-imposed retirement. He went on to wrote another Shakespeare-inspired masterpiece, Falstaff, when he was 80.
But is Otello so very good? I think there’s one big problem with it, which is the role of the villain Iago. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago has many more lines than Otello and this gives this character time to develop into a believable, and sometimes even appealing, individual. In the operatic version he is just a bad guy who is bad for the sake of it. His pointless cruelty makes him completely two-dimensional and he therefore doesn’t work for me at all as a motivating force behind the plot.
On the good side, the production looked great, especially the giant golden lion that appeared in Act 3. The costumes were good too, set in period in a very traditional provincial-opera kind of way but easy on the eye. The chorus of Welsh National Opera was outstanding and the principals all did very well. Amanda Roocroft was an especially tender and vulnerable Desdemona.
And then there was Otello himself, played by Denis O’Neill. Sixty years old but in very fine voice, and with lots of stage presence, my only problem with him was that he’s a bit too short and portly to be playing the fearsome warrior leader. Iago (David Kempster) towered over him almost comically in their scenes together. If Iago hated Otello so much why didn’t he just kill him? He looked as though he could easily beat him in a fight.
The orchestra played well and the final act in particular was paced superbly to achieve real dramatic power. Otello strangles Desdemona and then, when he realises the treachery of Iago and the innocence of the wife he has just murdered, he kills himself with a dagger.
What did you expect from an Opera, a happy ending?