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Verdi, ‘Otello Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, soloists, cond. Antonio Pappano, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 4 July 2005  (ME)



Appropriately for July 4th, this was the American soprano’s day: having withdrawn from the first two performances, Renée Fleming was singing her first Desdemona outside the U.S, having had great success with it at the Met and the Lyric. One might say that you either love her, or you don’t: she seems to inspire exceptional bitchiness from usually benign sources, as witness a deeply knowledgeable opera lover who surprised me with the comment ‘Ooh, Renée  (he pronounced it ‘Reanee’) – she’s got a void where her brain should be’ – but I happen to love her, since she is to my ears the Strauss (if not the Verdi) soprano of our time, thanks to her simply beautiful tone and her innate musicality. Yes, I did use that last word advisedly: Boito’s advice to those taking the part of Desdemona was that if she is ‘intelligent and respects art, she will find the effects without looking for them; if she is not intelligent, she will look for them without finding them’ and Fleming’s art on this occasion seemed to me to be based entirely on what was required from the music and characterization, so that she appeared neither as an over-sweet innocent nor a knowing schemer.



Of course, a frisson went through the audience when she made her entry, and for one ghastly moment I thought that some were going to break into applause, but fortunately ‘Mio superbo guerrier’ was allowed to fall upon the ears with its rightful grace, and her singing in the great duet was as supple, eloquent and poignant as could be desired. Her touching response to the flower offerings made that sickly scene almost engrossing, and of course she rose to the final moments as one would hope: ‘Piangea cantando’ was mellifluously phrased, with very little of the overplaying one so often sees here, relying for its impact upon a firm legato line, exceptional clarity of diction and emotional involvement without undue histrionics. Pappano gave her eloquent support, shaping the wonderful end of her prayer with exquisite finesse, making the double basses at Otello’s entrance more than usually doom-laden in their sombreness.


And the rest of the singing? In the main, no more than passable, and certainly no better than one would expect in a provincial house – not that there are many of those left for comparison, most of the available public money for such a supposedly ‘elite’ art having been poured into Covent Garden. Ben Heppner is of course ‘the’ heldentenor of the moment – this fach being so rare that the competition is not exactly fierce – and on a good night I’m sure he is a great Otello, but this wasn’t one of those. His Walther on the Met DVD proves that this really is an heroic and poetic voice, but here he sounded underpowered and careful rather than confident and ringing in tone. His ‘Esultate!’ was distinctly humdrum: instead of a great victorious cry, he made his entrance, leaned on a post and then sang the line hesitantly rather than exultantly. He is, however, much better when not singing forte, and ‘Già della notte densa’ had some lovely moments, and he really made the most of ‘Vien quest’ inmenso amor’ and ‘Un Bacio…’

Lucio Gallo’s Iago was the usual semi – pantomime villain; the writer of the programme notes is obviously one of those who regard Shakespeare as no more than a good librettist since he ascribes to the view that Verdi makes a great creation of this character – permit me to differ, but Iago’s subtlety is entirely lost in this music which leans far more towards Coleridge’s unfortunate definition of him as a man of ‘motiveless malignity.’ All that ‘Beve’ stuff is always embarrassing, and Shakespeare’s towering soliloquy in which Iago bares his soul here becomes the aria ‘Credo in un dio credel’ which loses what power to convince that it might have when the singer is presented as some sort of quasi-intellectual Hugh Laurie.



Paul Charles Clarke simply wasn’t up to the demands of Cassio, and of the rest only Andrew Kennedy, fresh from his win of the Lieder Prize at Cardiff (please don’t bother to write in and remind me it’s now called the Song Prize – I know, I know, but that’s just one dumb down too far) made a distinctive impression as Roderigo. The production? Static, gloomy, pointless as most ROH revivals are, with an especially directionless chorus: if one were not aware of how relatively luxurious their rehearsal time is, one might have been tempted to laugh at their lack of cohesiveness.


The orchestra played wonderfully under Pappano, the strings being just about the only thing, apart from Fleming, to remind one of past glories of this opera in this house; I was present at the performance featuring Domingo and Price of which Bernard Levin famously asked if anything closer to Heaven could possibly be imagined – this one wasn’t exactly closer to Hell, more like a pleasant but passionless limbo.



Melanie Eskenazi 


Pictures © Clive Barda

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