The premiere of “Otello”, directed by Stefano Poda, opens with a violent thunderstorm, warning of the darkness and tragedy to come. “Instead of bringing Verdi and Boito closer to us, I prefer trying to bring all of us to a dimension in which we are able to find the spirits of Verdi and Boito,” Poda explains. And so we enter that world; a raven-black, tense and edgy place with stark contrasts of colour, dramatic lyrics and a heavy majestic orchestral score.
With the libretto by Arrigo Boito and the warlike and magnificent score of Verdi, “Otello” deserves an epic set and moody lighting, and this premiere does not disappoint. The stage consists of giant Escher-type cubes, painted one half black, the other white, and walls with dozens of outstretched hands; a symbol of helplessness, paranoia and desperation.
As the Moor Otello arrrives at the Venetian-ruled Cyprus in this storm, victorious over the Muslim invaders, Roderigo, lovesick for Otello’s beautiful wife Desdemona, is manipulated by the treacherous Iago. Iago confesses his hatred for Otello for promoting Cassio to captain. He wants revenge on Otello. Mihály Kálmándi as Iago is brilliantly evil, casting a dark shadow across the black stage and contrasting with great effect to the tortured Otello, played by Lance Ryan.
Cassio is drunk. There is a plot by Roderigo and Iago to sabotage Otello and Desdemona’s wedding. Cassio draws swords with Montano. Otello demotes Cassio, to Iago’s delight, and restores order, but Otello is already splintering, his personality crumbling visibly as paranoia snakes its way in.
The colours of the lighting were predominantly dark but twice a strong red bathed the stage and the outstretched hands reaching out from the walls appeared as bright arterial red, dangerous red, a warning of the blood that would spill. A purple split the top of the stage towards the end of the opera; the only gentle light suggesting heavenly purity and realisation of the truth that has come too late for tortured Otello and his pure Desdemona.
In Act 2 Iago plays on Cassio’s shame by persuading him to speak with Desdemona and it is here he buries the glittering splinter of jealousy in Otello’s heart. Iago points out Desdemona and Cassio speaking together in the garden, suggesting Otello’s wife is not so pure in thought.
Otello is already enraged. The kerchief with which she tries to wipe his face was a gift from him and is thrown on the ground.
This simple act gives Iago all the evidence he needs for an insecure Otello to be convinced his wife is cheating on him. Gabriella Létay Kiss, tiny on the huge stage, portrays Desdemona with such fragility and a voice that could shatter all the glass in Cyprus. The power and nobility she finds within carry on until her last dying note.
The three central roles of Desdemona, Otello and Iago are some of Verdi’s most demanding in terms of vocal expression and also dramatically. The tension and jealousy and evil versus goodness and purity are palpable and exhausting. This is an opera that stretches its players to the limits and they perform admirably.
Otello rages throughout Act 3; he believes God has ripped away his last remaining happiness. He cannot rest until he has proof of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness.
Iago treacherously continues his plot, tricking Cassio like a masterful puppeteer. It is Iago who convinces Otello to strangle Desdemona as she sleeps in her sinful bed.
Otello believes Iago should be captain. He thinks he has found a true ally.
When a reception takes place to give Otello a letter recalling Cassio to Venice, replacing Otello, he hurls Desdemona to the floor in front of everyone and humiliates her.
As Act 3 melts seamlessly into the final act, Desdemona sings a mournful song to Emilia, her voice full of fear and sadness anticipating her death. Verdi’s orchestral score is more prominent in “Otello” than in any of his previous works, and it is at moments like this where the orchestra plays a major role in portraying the fragile Desdemona’s fears and emotions.
Emilia exits, Otello arrives and, torn between her beauty and his jealousy, hesitates and then screams for Desdemona to say her final prayers. He strangles her to death.
Cassio has killed Roderigo and as Emilia brings the news to Otello, the true realisation of Iago’s treachery is revealed. Otello stabs himself in grief.
Jealousy is a destructive emotion, which flickers like a flame raging into a full inferno burning through the fabric of life. Jealousy in love is the most dangerous and irrational emotion of all. Who cannot relate to the fire of jealousy, that taste of gasoline in the throat when someone steals your lover or you are afraid they are cheating? Emotions that have burned for centuries and will continue their greedy fire for centuries more.
As Iago warns,
“Beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It’s a dark monster, pale,
Blind, killing itself with its own poison,
Livid wound is tearing its chest.”
(Verdi, Boito: Otello Act 2)
Hungarian State Opera
Opera House, Andrássy út 22, District VI
Until Sunday October 11
For opera tickets and information go to www.jegymester.hu/en