Otello ó Kirov Opera

Francesco Tamagno, the original Otello, also gathered accolades
during his tour a couple of years later. Yet, Otello came to Russia
on the crest of the nationalist wave there that had critics and audiences
laughing ìthe old manî Verdi out of the theater. This complex and
arguably ìun-Verdianî opera proved especially puzzling: too difficult and
ìmodernî for traditionalists raised on Barbiere and La
; too old-fashioned for the Wagnerians, and too Italian for
everyone else. Today, amid a Verdi boom in St Petersburg unseen since La
forza del destino
premiered there in 1862, Otello is enjoying a
renaissance at the Mariinsky (a.k.a. the Kirov). The opera appears to be one
of Valerii Gergievís particular obsessions: since he took the reigns at the
Kirov as artistic director and principal conductor in 1988, it has had at
least five different productions there. The most recent one, premiered this
fall and directed by Vasily Barkhatov, is currently playing at the Kennedy
Center as part of the Kirovís annual residency there.

The visually arresting production (sets by Zinovy Margolin; costumes by
Maria Danilova; phenomenal lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky) bears little
resemblance to Renaissance Crete. The main set (used in Acts 1-3) is an angle
of (presumably) a city square; tall white walls stained with gray, like aged
marble, narrow towards the back of the set dominated by a huge working
lighthouse that might be more at home on a bluff in 1950s New England than in
16th century Italy. The front left side of the stage transforms in the middle
two acts into Otelloís office, with heavy wooden furniture, an
old-fashioned (i.e., 1950s again) coat stand and round table lamp. The
opposite wall (or is it the wall of the city square?) is lined with silent
female figures, dressed in black, their heads covered with shawls more
Russian than Italian. Beggars, or petitioners, these figures (not a part of
the chorus located in these acts on platforms on top of the walls) darken the
landscape like an obsessive gloomy ostinato in this increasingly gloomy tale.
Particularly striking is the opening of the Act 3 finale, in which Desdemona,
dressed in black, joins their line, made destitute by her husbandís
suspicions. The costumes overall are modern yet outdated: office suits for
the leading men, crisp business-like creations for the socialite Emilia
(wonderful Lyubov Sokolova), traditional long skirts and cloaks (increasingly
drained of color) for Desdemona; brown and black, drab, nondescript Russian
peasant fare (occasionally with a hint of an Italian scarf design) for the
crowd. There was no bonfire in Act 1 for the chorus to sing and dance to, but
there were fireworks of sorts, with the colorful explosion of confetti from
the ceiling and the wings. Single pieces of the confetti then continued to
fall down onto the stage through Acts 2 and 3. It was unclear whether the
effect was a purposeful one; if not, the coincidence was fortuitous: like
falling autumn leaves that evoke the memories of summer, the confetti pieces
served as poignant reminders of glories past.

The lead attraction of the production, dramatic tenor Vladimir Galouzine
has been the leading man of the Kirov for more than a decade, and an
international star for almost as long. The sharp, focused, metallic timbre of
his youth, best exemplified on the 1994 Kirov DVD recording of
Rimsky-Korsakovís Sadko, in which he sings the lead, has now
turned darker, heavier, with more emphasis on the lower register, and on
sheer sound power over crispness and precision of diction and intonation. The
change parallels that generally observed in arguably the worldís most
famous living Otello, Placido Domingo, who once performed the role in St
Petersburg under Gergiev, and whose influence is recognizable in certain
moments of Galouzineís gut-wrenching performance (apart from the ìusual
suspectsî ó all four duets with Desdemona and the scene with Iago in Act
2 ó I particularly recommend his fabulously menacing asides to his wife in
the Act 3 finale). Yet overall, his interpretation is distinctly different
from Domingoís: instead of the tragic noble hero destroyed by evil,
Galouzine offers a broken, anxious, almost fragile Otello (despite his
suitably earth-shattering Esultate!), damaged not from the outside
but from within. The brittleness of the character shows almost from the start
of the opera ó that is, from the Act 1 love duet, in which the bliss
suggested by the score is constantly undermined by Galouzineís angular
gestures, terrified looks over the shoulder, and slouching posture, wrapping
both the coat and arms tight around his body as if shivering.

If Vladimir Galouzineís Otello is hardly a wholesome hero, Sergey
Murzaevís Iago is no Mephistopheles. In his gray three-piece suit, tie, and
glasses, he is more of a petty bureaucrat who smiles placidly as he stabs his
boss in the back with a letter opener ó or in this case a pocket knife he
uses to sharpen pencils on the handsome mahogany desk in Otelloís office as
he is proclaiming his infamous creed. Incidentally, the singer was clearly
outperformed by maestro Gergiev and the orchestra in the fiendishly difficult
Credo, central to Iagoís self-representation as the resident devil
of Verdiís opera. Yet his softer, more sinister moments, such as the
Era la notte later in Act 2, were pulled off beautifully, with fine
sound and nuanced acting. Thus, in the finale of Act 3, in which Iago, with
fatherly smile, points out the ìlion of Veniceî prostrated at his feet to
a group of kid extras, Murzaev looked downright creepy.

Young Viktoria Yastrebova was a terrific Desdemona, fearlessly determined
not to be dominated by her illustrious partner and occasionally outshining
him with a rich, warm, clear sound, effortless projection and pure high
notes. The dynamics clearly reflected Barkhatovís directorial
interpretation of the drama itself, and particularly his revisionist take on
Desdemona. Instead of the usual weepy blond, Yastrebova offers a dark-haired
Desdemona ó smart, assertive, unapologetic (as much as that is possible
without altering Verdiís score), and not above manipulating her husband, as
evident in the Act 2 duet when she literally lets her hair down in order to
seduce Otello into forgiving Cassio (portrayed nicely by Sergei Semishkur).
This Desdemona is less naÔvely terrified by Otelloís accusations than she
is angry, and genuinely concerned for her husbandís mental state; one
almost expects her to whip out a business card for a neighborhood shrink. As
a result, Yastrebovaís least convincing moment came near the end of Act 4:
begging for her life seemed almost beneath the strong and thoroughly modern
character projected throughout the opera. The earlier part of that act,
however, and particularly the Willow Song, was by itself worth the price of

Apart from making Desdemona a brunette, Barkhatovís production dispensed
with yet another Otello classic ó the bedroom scenes. The Act 1
duet is a moonlit picnic on the city square (although Desdemona does bring
the bed linen, presumably to use as a tablecloth). Act 4 does include a bed
ó severe, narrow, pillowless, and used as an ironing board by silent
servant women who fold and pack the colorful dresses of Desdemonaís
virginal youth (none of which she wears in the opera), as she slowly rips up
her wedding night bed sheets, turning them into handkerchiefs. The final
scene (from Ave Maria on) takes place not in the bedroom (the
opening of the act is performed in front of the black curtain), but on top of
the lighthouse that dominated the earlier set. Now in a close-up, it is
divided into two narrow fenced circular platforms, one above the other;
Desdemona sings her prayers from the lower platform, then watches Otello
literally descend upon her from the top. There are no messy murders after
Desdemonaís; Iago flees from Otelloís verbal thunderbolts, and the other
characters ó Cassio, Emilia, and Lodovico the ambassador (excellent Fedor
Kuznetsov) ó watch silently as Otello (mortally wounded not by his favorite
revolver but by something resembling an ice pick ó or a screwdriver…)
drags his dead wife to the back of the lighthouse, out of sight, like a dying
lion crawling back into his lair, unwilling to let go of his final prey.

My review would not be complete without the highest praise for Kirovís
outstanding Choir (principal chorus master Andrei Petrenko). Its performance
was strong, clean, rhythmically and intonationally precise, yet alive,
particularly in the powerful opening scene played out on a darkened stage lit
only by the searching beam of the lighthouse. Finally, maestro Gergiev in the
pit was unquestionably the leader of the production, as he should have been
in this orchestra-driven score. It was performed with power and intensity,
precision and nuance, and very nearly flawlessly, with the exception of some
intonation problems in the strings, particularly in the difficult double bass
solo that accompanies Otelloís entrance in the last act (not many in the
audience would have noticed that flaw, however, as the section was drowned by
an epidemic of coughing from the back of the orchestra seats).

Overall, I would highly recommend catching this innovative, powerful, and
intensely watchable production, still available Wednesday night (with
partially new cast) and Sunday afternoon (with the main soloists reprising
their roles).

Olga Haldey

image_description=Otello — Kirov Opera
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.