Yoncheva’s sublime Desdemona lifts Met’s tepid “Otello”

Sat Dec 15, 2018 at 2:09 pm
Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

The most powerful scene in Verdi’s Otello is an invention of the librettist. In the final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello, the title character asks his wife “Have you pray’d tonight, Desdemona?”—she has, she says. Arrigo Boito used that line as his cue to show the prayer onstage, adding it to the end of the Willow scene, an ingenious addition to an already masterly drama.

That scene alone, and Sonya Yoncheva’s performance, makes it worth catching the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival, which opened Friday night. Yoncheva is a formidable actress, and her artistry was sublime, contrasting the deep grief of the “Willow Song” with the more contained, intimate emotion of the “Ave Maria.” The very highest range of her voice wasn’t quite cooperating, but her rich, blooming soprano is a perfect match for the role.

Hers is a fierce take on Desdemona: the essential kindness of her character certainly comes through in her early interactions with her husband, but she was not content simply to cower when he first made his violent accusation of infidelity in Act III. That inner strength made her inability to escape her fate all the more devastating.

But apart from its star soprano, this revival felt sleepy, even though it featured accomplished vocal performances. The main culprit is the production by Bartlett Sher, which was dull enough when it opened the 2015-16 season; now, without even the spark of novelty, it looks cheap and unimaginative. Everything is acted in front of a rolling plexiglass palazzo. In Act III, when Iago stages a conversation with Cassio to deceive the eavesdropping Otello, the palace modules roll around on casters, trying to give the sense that the pair are scurrying from street to street. The result is comical, looking like an enormous game of live-action Tetris.

On a more fundamental level, the Met’s production still doesn’t know how to deal with its title character. In this staging’s 2015 premiere, the Met finally did away with the practice of putting the lead tenor in blackface, but Sher has no ideas on what to do instead. The abuse and suspicion Otello endures as a black man in Venetian society are essential driving forces for his character; with a white tenor in the role, if the director can find no way to portray his status as “other,” the story as written simply does not make any sense.

Željko Lučić, the company’s go-to baritone for all things villainous, has had a busy season: Jack Rance, Michele, Scarpia, and now Iago. The Serbian singer was in fine voice on Friday, showing his usual lean, taut sound and realizing his character as a walking mass of malice. Oddly, he was least effective in the role’s most crucial moment, the booming aria “Credo in un dio crudel,” which felt flat without the ferociousness of delivery he showed the rest of the night. Not just stormy, Iago is also a silver-tongued deceiver, and in this side of the role Lučić was brilliant, reflecting the slickness of his character with smoother tone and phrasing.

Friday’s Otello, Carl Tanner, was announced earlier in the day as a replacement for Stuart Skelton, who was ill. That he was able to perform so well in so difficult a role under the circumstances was impressive. At his best, he achieved a firm, full ring, and he showed more and more of this side of his voice as the night wore on and the role called for more passionate singing at full blast. In more tender lyrical music, such as the ravishing duet with Desdemona at the end of Act I, Tanner had to squeeze for tone. His stale acting left a lot to be desired, though he can be forgiven for not having had time to rehearse with the rest of the cast.

Alexey Dolgov returned to the role of Cassio, with which he made his debut in 2013. He gave an energetic performance, though he didn’t have quite the right kind of charisma for Otello’s dashing lieutenant, seeming more sleazy than magnetic. He brought a powerful, if slightly reedy, tenor to the role. Jennifer Johnson Cano was outstanding as Emilia, Desdemona’s attendant and Iago’s wife. She owns a warm mezzo-soprano and a sympathetic stage presence that she could turn into fire-spitting anger when the moment required. 

Chad Shelton impressed as Roderigo with a bright but weighty tenor, and James Morris made a celebrity cameo as Lodovico—taut and a little weary-sounding, his bass is still effective in certain character roles, but he didn’t quite capture the gravitas of the Doge of Venice.

Friday’s performance featured the high-profile debut of Gustavo Dudamel, the flashy music director of the L.A. Philharmonic. He kept a tight hand on the ensemble, but his pacing was bizarre: he sprinted through the opening storm, yet much of Act III seemed to stretch out interminably. On the whole, though, this was a fine debut, as the Met Orchestra sounded radiant under his baton and Dudamel drew a dynamic range far wider than we often hear out of the pit.

Otello runs through January 10 at the Metropolitan Opera. Julianna DiGiacomo appears as Desdemona on December 28. metopera.org

One Response to “Yoncheva’s sublime Desdemona lifts Met’s tepid “Otello””

  1. Posted Dec 17, 2018 at 10:58 pm by Olga Berg

    Absolutely on point, dreadfully boring production

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