I cannot recall a more highly anticipated performance. Jonas Kaufmann, demigod of the opera world was about take to the stage of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, making his debut in the title role of Verdi’s Otello. And I was in the stalls.
There was a sense of disbelief to the occasion. After a spate of cancellations over the last year – for reasons of rest and a desire to spend more time closer to Europe and his family, fans awaited this appearance with bated breath. As the clock ticked its way past curtain up there were jokes around me about the manager taking to the stage to announce the understudy. Recently Kaufmann withdrew from his (northern) winter appearances in Tosca at the Met in New York for family reasons, making it four years since he last sang there. With his gifts, he can be selective about what he does. As well, this debut role as Otello, marked a transition from lighter repertoire like Cavaradossi and Andrea Chenier to a darker and more mature persona – not just vocally, but in the character he was about to portray.
Serendipitously this closing night of Kaufmann’s season as Otello also fell on his 48th birthday. The portents were good and promise was fulfilled from the moment we first saw and heard Kaufmann borne above the chorus in his opening strains. Mercifully not in black-face, but sporting a healthy tan, Kaufmann portrayed with tremendous insight, the disintegration of Otello from victor to paranoid murderer. The power of his voice, amply demonstrated in Ora e per sempre addio sante memorie, was hushed to the ‘covered’ and creamy pianissimo that is classic Kaufmann in Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali, winning compassion without sentimentality or melodrama. Technically, physically and dramatically demanding, this is a role that Kaufmann will no doubt come to own and it will be a pleasure to witness the symbiotic development of singer and character.
With apologies to W C Fields, I would modify his noted trope – “Never work with animals, children or Jonas Kaufmann”. There were numerous other outstanding aspects of this production, perhaps unfairly glossed over. Italian soprano Maria Agresta played a vulnerable and misunderstood Desdemona. She delivered her showstoppers, the Willow Song and Ave Maria (sung at Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral) with exquisite grace and beauty; Marco Vratogna’s Iago was pure bass-voiced evil, and the roles of Cassio (Frederic Antoun), Roderigo (tenor Thomas Atkins, a Jette Parker Young Artist from New Zealand) and Emilia (Kai Ruutel) were aptly cast and impressively performed.
Keith Warner’s production with costumes by Kaspar Glarner, lighting by Bruni Poet and set designer Boris Kudlička making his Royal Opera debut, created a court beset by shifting boundaries, intrigue and ghostly figures heightened by the powerful use of shadows and mirrors.
Maestro Antonio Pappano created a soundscape with orchestra and chorus that veered from the terrifying to jubilation and pathos.
The London season of this production of Otello is over. But don’t despair. The performance on June 28 was filmed and will be screened in Sydney at the Palace Cinemas in Leichhardt and Paddington in late July and early August.
Even better, Sydney audiences will be able to hear the great tenor live in concert performances of Parsifal presented by Opera Australia in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House.
If Jonas Kaufmann’s performance as Otello is a yardstick, his Parsifal is going to be something very special.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©