When Giuseppe Verdi was persuaded out of retirement in 1879 to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello, eventually premiered in 1887, there was some doubt as to whether he should be called Otello or Iago (to avoid confusion with Rossini’s Otello of 1816, still famous in time). More than a century later, David Alden’s new production for the Grange Park Opera must undoubtedly be called Iago: this character rules throughout, as the master manipulator and conspirator of Otello’s downfall.
At the beginning of each of the four acts, Iago stands out of the frame of action as the curtain opens, drawing us in to observe the last stage of his machinations. When delivered with the brooding, sardonic delight that Simon Keenlyside brings to the role, it’s easy to forget that his scheme rests on something as fragile as a handkerchief – the sign by which he convinces Otello that his wife Desdemona is unfaithful to Captain Cassio. With such meager means, Iago incites Otello to fierce jealousy and eventually murderous hatred for his innocent wife.
Notionally set in Cyprus (which appears here on a wall map that Otello destroys in one of his rages), the immutable 1930s quasi-fascist backdrop of Charlie Edwards and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes creates a dark context for the drama: a bar, a curtain, an empty room with (at the end) a tiny bed for Desdemona. Alden’s trademark technique of his cast’s giant shadows are reflected off the wall, and Tim Mitchell’s oblique lighting creates some powerful moments, most notably towards the end when Otello opens the door to Desdemona’s room.
The whole effect, however, is rather grim: whether the setting is updated or not, the contrast between the imposing grandeur we hear in the music and the intimacy of the unfolding relationships is necessary. And while there are some strong individual performances here, there’s still no sense that they fit together into a compelling whole.
Alongside Keenlyside’s Iago, Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Otello struggles to become the dominant character in the drama: we have heavily projected words, powerful chants in the mid-range, but in the upper register, which should resonate with unforced passion and conviction, there’s tone. unyielding and a sense of tension.
In contrast, Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Desdemona has superb top notes of unearthly directness and purity, but tends to spread the tone less evenly across the scale, and encourages wildness rather than restraint: she is more focused on her Willow Song. and final. evocation of the Hail Mary. The two connect best in the Act III duet “Dio ti giocondi, a sposo,” where the writing is simple and eloquent.
A solidly supportive cast includes Olivia Ray’s tense and anxious Emilia, who stands out in the final desperate scene where Otello murders his wife (here by shooting her instead of choking her), alongside Cassio straight from Elgar Llyr Thomas, Anthony Flaum the arrogant Roderigo and Matthew Brook’s impassive ambassador Lodovico. Lynne Hockney’s dancers add a touch of sensuality that was otherwise lacking.
A small chorus does its energetic best to make a big splash in Verdi’s magnificent crowd scenes, and it’s a surprising moment when all the men, but not the women, rush to Desdemona’s defense when Otello publicly throws her to the ground and curses her. . But there is no strong enough character in Gianluca Marciano’s conducting, and as a result, Orquestra Gascoigne struggles to create the internal tension and precisely calculated sonorities of Verdi’s inexhaustible score, one of the greatest late works of any composer.
In rep until July 9th, festival goes until July 17th; grangeparkopera.co.uk