Matthew Scott

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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

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