Friday, February 15, 2008

Verdi the Bard

Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito
production by Elijah Moshinsky
conducted by Semyon Bychkov
Starring Johan Botha, Renee Fleming, Carlo Guelfi

The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Aves.
(212) 362-6000
Performances February 11-March 8, 2008

Fleming as Desdemona
Botha as Otello and
Guelfi asIago
When Verdi returned to composing operas after a 16-year hiatus following Aida in 1871, he also returned to his favorite writer, Shakespeare. After composing Macbeth in 1846, Verdi had toyed with writing an opera based on King Lear but didn’t feel that the right voices were available to sing what he envisioned as incredibly demanding roles.

Arrigo Boito penned a concise libretto based on Othello, and Verdi felt compelled to compose again. Otello turned out to be his greatest opera, an intense, dramatic, and cunningly constructed distillation of Shakespeare’s five-act tragedy of jealousy and evil. This is one of only two operatic adaptations that actually improve on the Bard; the other is Verdi's final opera, Falstaff (1893), also with a libretto by Boito, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Otello is back at the Met in Elijah Moshinsky’s epic production. Verdi’s thrilling transposition of Shakespeare makes its musical points immediately in the opening battle scene, as surging waves of sound conjure a huge storm at sea and the mighty chorus gives forth with cries of victory. This famous opening, capped by Otello’s exhilarating first appearance, has never sounded better at the Met than it does under the sure hand of conductor Semyon Bychkov. Throughout the opera, as Verdi commandingly alternates between large-scale sequences and more intimate moments, the Met orchestra and chorus are on the same musical wavelength.

Iago is one of the great villains of all time, and thanks to Boito’s brilliant libretto, he may even be more imposing in the opera than in Shakespeare’s play. His Act II aria about absolute evil, “Credo in un Dio crudel” (“I believe in a cruel God”), is a fantastic opportunity for any singer. Yet, for all of his skill, Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi doesn’t fully convey the character complexity that Boito put into the words and Verdi poured into the music.

Otherwise, Guelfi is more than a match for the Otello of Johan Botha, the South African tenor who has an innate musicality and a ringing tone of voice. The beauty of that voice is evident from the start, and the tenor can bellow and sing softly with the best of them. Botha has everything down pat musically, but his wooden acting militates against his creating a truly incisive characterization.

As Desdemona, reigning American soprano Renee Fleming returns to the role she sang for her first Met season opener in 1995. Her limpid vocal lines are intact; she conveys Desdemona’s purity and innocence with both a youthfulness and maturity (to coin a paradox) that probably wasn’t possible more than a decade ago. Her insight into the character, combined with her voice’s melting loveliness, makes her an ideal interpreter of this most angelic of Verdi’s women.

Would that her co-stars were up to her rarefied level; then, this well-done Otello would be positively devastating.

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