A Study in Blackness
The Royal Opera, London, Spring/Summer 2017
Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo (1886 version), Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg When Zeffirelli cast Domingo in the role of Otello three decades ago for his acclaimed film of Verdi’s opera, there was little concern when the Moor appeared bronzed with rather more than a high Mediterranean tan. Critical sensitivities have shifted dramatically since and, at the present time, a white Othello, blacked up or in plain face, is an unlikely prospect. The operatic world has been said to lag behind but Keith Warner’s superb sellout production at Covent Garden, in which the role is shifted onto the supreme tenor of the new generation, ensured that the old question was again looking pretty elephantine: just how black is Otello (or indeed Othello) really supposed to be? Judging from their reaction at the end, most in the adoring audience seemed to find Jonas Kaufmann pretty moreish but the issue remained of just how Moorish he really looked. Arrigo Boito (the librettist), in his economic transformation of Shakespeare, retains much of the nasty racism of the original with references to Otello’s thick-lipped savagery. But he also further emphasizes Iago’s apparently ‘motiveless malignity’ (in Coleridge’s pithy phrase) as a product of sheer nihilism from one believing existence to be a cruel trick that leads to nothing (‘La Morte è il Nulla’ in his terrifying aria at the start of Act Two). This makes sense as a late-nineteenth-century refashioning of that relationship, but the matter of racial otherness does remain key to the love between Otello and Desdemona, not least in the desperately touching night scene (nicely lit by Bruno Poet) where she recounts his exotic wooing of her. Against this, Kaufmann looked if not exactly Germanic then, well, decidedly Jonas Kaufmann. Does this really still matter? It does, but for a different reason. The debate over makeup (and the role of make-believe) has been
had and won by one side, for better or worse, but the opera presents special challenges. Many actors, black or white, could take on Othello successfully; very few tenors can make a success of Otello, surely one of the most complexly textured roles in the business. Kaufmann is clearly one and yet he presents audiences with a question about the conditions of dramatic illusion long before curtain up. What Warner does is to sideline the issue cleverly and thereby suggest implicitly just how subtle the matter of racial difference always is, and therefore how narrowly bigotries apply. In place of the business of skin, he addresses a different kind of blackness, and this is the matter of Otello’s mind.
This production is all about the psychodrama of Otello’s interior consciousness. Perhaps the most affecting scene has Iago and Otello in a form of sadomasochistic embrace at the end of Act Two, as the former forces a Greek tragic mask onto his master. The two writhe in symbolic inaction, drawing each other together towards a deadly nothingness. Marco Vratogna, extraordinarily compelling as Iago, is wormlike and squirming; Otello, the great naval leader, prone in hopeless inagency. For both, we must conclude, the work of life is done; all that is left is to force themselves jointly into that fatal last act. Antonio Pappano’s fast-paced conducting worked as a brilliant contrast: these two are rushing at life, seemingly without thought – or without the right thoughts; and it can only lead one way both musically and dramatically. Initially, Otello, in Kaufmann’s icy hands, had a foolish superiority about him that seemed right. The warrior is good for war at sea. On dry land, he is looking for control but is fagged out and, bluntly, lost – singing powerfully but with pseudo-strategic force in place of reasoned thought. If some might see a quality of Apollonian concert performance in Kaufmann’s version of Otello, then they are right to do so: Otello is performing his life but events are running at a pace he can’t master. Warring against superficial control, there is a kind of Dionysian madness bubbling up to boiling point that he only barely keeps at bay with the controlled voice. As such, it is a role that requires a demanding range of emotions. Kaufmann exhibited extraordinary dignity at moments (particularly in the opening Esultate); he sang with immense tenderness; and while he never really achieved the menace that is needed in the final