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In Review > North America

Otello

NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Opera
9/21/15

The Met season opened with a new Otello, staged by Bartlett Sher and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

In Review Met Otello hdl 1215
Yoncheva and Antonenko, Desdemona and Otello at the Met
© Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

A NEW BARTLETT SHER production of Verdi’s Otello opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015–16 season on September 21. A work with a long and distinguished history at the company, Otello has been in the Met repertory since 1891 and was the first opera to be telecast from the stage of the Met, when Ramon Vinay, Licia Albanese and Leonard Warren headed the cast on opening night of the 1948–49 season. The premiere of the new Otello staging was dedicated to the memory of Jon Vickers, a beloved interpreter
of the title role, who sang it for the company thirty-one times, including the opera’s first presentation on Live from the Met, in 1978.

On this occasion, the night belonged not to any of the singers but to conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose electrifying leadership of this score was the peak of his Met career to date. In his first performance of Otello for the company, Nézet-Séguin delivered a polished, brilliantly paced reading, moving the action forward with subtlety, elegance and dramatic acumen, drawing poetry as well as power from the orchestra and chorus and partnering his principals with impressive integrity and perfectly judged accommodation. Nézet-Séguin’s previous work at the Met—which includes the premieres of new productions of Carmen (2009), Don Carlo (2010) and Faust (2011)—has been very fine, but this Otello was first-rate, worthy of the opera’s great tradition at this company.

In the principal cast, the hit of the show was scored by Sonya Yoncheva, a handsome Bulgarian soprano whose tenure at the Met began as Gilda in 2013. Deservedly hailed last season for her striking work as Mimì and Violetta, Yoncheva sang Desdemona with confidence and intelligence, her fresh, lyric voice sounding most attractive and persuasive in the Act I love duet and the great Act IV scena. Yoncheva currently lacks the final degree of fullness and power needed for the testing Act III concertato—some narrowing of tone was audible at the top of her range—but her charisma and strength of purpose carried the day. Beautifully dressed in Catherine Zuber’s stunning gowns, Yoncheva moved with grace, acted with economy and dominated the drama. Yoncheva is an imaginative, generous performer who commands attention; her unaffected dignity in the court scenes was riveting and quite moving.

Her Otello, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, had a less successful evening. Usually a big, strong vocal presence, Antonenko sang with damaging lapses in intonation and a startling lack of personality. In 2011, under Riccardo Muti’s tight supervision, Antonenko’s stiff, gentlemanly Otello made a positive impression in a concert performance of the opera at Carnegie Hall; four years later, Antonenko’s Otello seems to have diminished in power, with the character’s emotions unmodulated and his delivery unvaryingly loud. What should have been rage registered as petulance. The Met’s decision to have this production mark the end of the convention of using black makeup for the character of Verdi’s Otello was well-publicized, but Antonenko’s unfocused performance, whatever the shade of his makeup, made it difficult to judge how director Sher intended to establish the crucial sense of “otherness” that Otello needs. 

Sher’s staging was generally workmanlike and uncharacteristically conservative: the static use of the superb Met chorus in the opening storm scene was a misfire, despite the intriguing introduction of Desdemona in her bridal dress. There were several compelling sequences in Sher’s production, best among them the complex section of Act III that presents Iago’s manipulation of Otello, Cassio, Desdemona and Emilia, which was directed with admirable clarity and musicality. The marvelous English designer Es Devlin made her Met debut with the sets for this Otello; the luminous, shape-shifting arrangement of walls she created was captivating in repose and in motion.

Željko Lučić’s Iago was commendable for its authentic power and clean vocal profile, especially in his zesty singing of the drinking song and of the Act II oath with Otello, although the baritone’s imposing, implacable manner—so wonderfully effective in his performances as Macbeth and Carlo Gérard—dampened the fiery menace needed for the “Credo.” Dimitri Pittas contributed a Cassio of genuine pathos, and the invaluable Jennifer Johnson Cano was a blue-chip Emilia. —F. Paul Driscoll 

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