Otello

On Friday night, I went for a second time to this Opera Australia production.

The previous Saturday, as mentioned in passing before, I went with D. We sat in the middle of the front row, which I like, but I felt the need for a second viewing with more of an opportunity to pay attention to the words. This is Shakespeare after all, even if in Italian. I secured a seat in the middle of row C. This is still B reserve, but there is a noticeably easier angle for the occasional glimpse of the surtitles. An inferior view of the orchestra was offset by a better aspect to the set. This featured a steep stage-wide staircase. When the chorus was in full cry this gave a terrific “wall of sound.”

I have wept at Otello. Admittedly it was at a time of love sorrow when I was more prone to tears than I am now or normally. That was the production prior to this one. I have also seen this production before. I’ve probably seen the opera 5 or 6 times now, if not more.

I have never seen the play. It isn’t put on that often, and in any event I have always recoiled from it as one of those plays, like Lear, where you just know everything is going to end badly from pretty much the beginning. I studied it twice – at school and later university. So now I find I am most familiar with the necessarily truncated version (I read somewhere 850 lines compared to about 3500) produced by Boito, Verdi’s librettist. When I looked at the play in a Handyvolume Shakspear (1868 ) which, missing one of 12 volumes, has come to me from one of my grandparents, I found that there was a lot more in it than I remembered.

Some of Boito’s innovations include:

  1. The opera opens with an anxious crowd watching what proves to be the safe return in tempest of Otello’s ship.  This is basically the beginning of Act II of the play.
  2. There is a greater focus on Iago, who is even delivers an atheistic, nihilistic soliloquy which depicts Iago in an almost Mephistopelean mode.  The result might tend to melodrama but is apt for an opera, where there is not time for the more detailed intrigues which the play permits.
  3. Boito takes a cue from the moment in the play where Otello kisses the sleeping Desdemona while he also contemplates killing her 
  4. “O balmy breath that doth almost persuade
    Justice to break her sword! One more, one more. –
    Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee
    And love thee after.  One more, and that’s the last:
    So sweet was ne’er so fatal.

    In Boito’s version, Otello and Desdemona have a love duet in the first act where Otello asks Desdemona for a kiss, and then for another kiss. After Otello kills Desdemona, he repeats those lines again – matched, of course, by a musical recapitulation. This bookends the opera’s presentation of their relationship.

  5. In the last act of the opera, Boito focuses on Desdemona’s pathetic end. As well as the willow song, she sings an Ave Maria and these are immediately followed by the arrival of Otello to do the deed. Emilia tells Otello that Cassio has killed Roderigo, but we don’t see, as in the play, that in fact Iago struck the blow.

In both play and opera, there is the mysterious manner of Desdemona’s death which, notwithstanding that she is smothered or strangled, does not prevent her from speaking after its infliction.

The production is one of those which has gone for a single amazing set, in this case the staircase I mentioned before.  This worked well until the last act, when the absence of any softening boudoir-like features robbed Desdemona’s death of some of its pathos.

I discussed the opera with XX, a Very Important Barrister, whom I had run into at the first, Saturday, performance. She felt that the production didn’t really explain why Otello felt the need to kill Ophelia Desdemona (thanks Wanderer below for spotting that – on the other hand, if Ophelia did not kill herself but was in fact murdered by Otello that would open a realm of intertextuality which would leave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for dead ).  She then seemed to concede that, though people might well feel a similar incomprehension when similar jealousy killings occur today, such killings are sufficiently familiar that we regard them as comprehensible. My own tentative answer at this time was that as an outsider, Otello was particularly jealous of his “honour,” since it was hard-won and fragilely held. Having seen the opera again, I’d say the opera (correctly, for its day) assumes a greater familiarity than today’s with such jealousy simpliciter. For whatever reason, Iago has spotted the germs of this in Otello from the outset. Cassio’s elevation and Otello’s ordered return to Venice only precipitate acts on which Otello has already resolved.

The cast was as follows:

Desdemona – Cheryl Barker
Emilia – Jacqueline Dark
Cassio – Kanen Breen
Roderigo – Andrew Brunsdon
Otello – Dennis O’Neill
Iago -Jonathan Summers
Montano – Stephen Bennett
Lodovico – Shane Lowrencev

Vocally, it would be hard for Opera Australia to better that, and especially the casting for Otello, Iago and Desdemona. It was good to see Kanen Breen move beyond a character role as Cassio, the next biggest part.

O’Neill seemed to me to be swarthed up (rather than blacked-up) just a little as a Moor rather than a black man. Others couldn’t notice this.

There was a funny moment in Act I when, at the end of their love duet, Otello and Desdemona ascended the stairs towards the back of the stage for a romantic vignette. O’Neill strode up and Barker followed more slowly (perhaps on account of her high heels) at quite a distance behind him. It didn’t look very romantic at all, but rather as though they had been married for a very long time over which any early ardour had cooled.

3 Responses to “Otello

  1. Sarah Says:

    Well it took me four times to realise that D. really was wearing make up and even then I had to be told. Seems to sort of defeat the purpose.
    And just so you feel stalked, I did see you down there in Row C, and envied you your seat. Although my loge had its advantages in the end.

  2. Wanderer Says:

    You meant Desdemona, not Ophelia, I’m sure.

    I agree with you that ‘outsider’ is the clue, a clue not easy to find in the production. It not only underscores O’s sexual insecurity but helps define an attitude and cultural divide which for me makes it easier, though not essential, to understand that this love of O for D was of the worst kind, a love of possession and ownership. Once exposed for what it is, destruction of both parties is usually the result. Man kills wife and children then shoots himself. Everyday. There is no sympathy for these men, nor should there be for O. Just horror. Did you cry for him, or her?

    That she was, or wasn’t, ‘guilty’ makes no difference to love of the highest order wherein lies forgiveness. He simply didn’t ever love her.

    Anyway, on another note, what do you make of the thought that Iago was jealous not of O, but of D? I’d like to know what VIB thinks about the boys.

    W

  3. The Rabbit Says:

    I can say nothing about the opera, but the play seems to me the least of the four major tragedies.

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