While up in Bow Street, the Royal Opera opened the season with open house for a youthful audience watching a paean to unlikely mammaries, English National Opera, perhaps mindful that they were competing with Last Night of the Proms, opened with Stuart Skelton singing the title role in a new production of Verdi’s Otello. In recent years, Verdi’s masterpiece has very much been the property of the Royal Opera, with a series of highly successful revivals of Elijah Moshinsky’s traditional and long-lived production involving big international stars. The most recent of these involved the near perfect partnership of Antonenko and Harteros under the incendiary baton of Antonio Pappano. Those are big shoes to step into but I am delighted to report that ENO more than stepped up to the mark – this was the best opening night at the Coliseum that I can remember in a very long time and all factors coalesced into a thrilling and emotionally draining evening.
The raison d’être for the production was Stuart Skelton’s debut as Otello. Skelton is mainly known at the moment for his assumption of Wagnerian Heldentenor roles; that is not always the best route into the challenges of this role. Though both Fach require weighty, tireless voices, the vocal layout is very different and Otello requires a warmth of tone and a wide palette of subtle vocal colouring that few Heldentenors have at their command. Fortunately, Skelton started his career in Italian roles and that world still pervades his singing. Right from the opening “Esultate” to his dying fall, Skelton already commands almost every facet of the role. Only the very lowest (cruelly low!) reaches of the role such as the opening of the love duet and “Va, volentieri obliato l’avrei” feel, as yet, slightly under-projected but that is a small price to pay when the remaining 95% of the range is so confidently encompassed. I wondered early on in the evening if there might be a slight shortfall at the top of the voice too but those thoughts were banished by the climax of the Oath Duet and the long held B flat at the end “Dio! Mi potevi scagliar”. Skelton’s Heldentenor background ensures that he has no problem whatsoever riding Verdi’s thickest orchestration but, crucially for this role, he is also able to fine the voice away to the merest whisper without losing either pitch or projection. In this he more than once reminded me of Pavarotti’s underrated recording of the role.
Huge though the vocal challenges of the role are, they are equalled by the acting challenges. This is not a role that one can manage on vocal splendour alone. Skelton’s working relationship with director David Alden has been a long and fruitful one and while I have not always enjoyed the overall productions, there is no doubt that Alden produced some riveting portrayals from Skelton. This was no exception. Skelton’s bear-like warlord entered with supreme confidence – the hubris of the pre-prepared triumphal chair hoisting was a particular revealing detail. But his violent fury at the riot and Cassio’s fall from grace revealed the cracks in the confident façade and this was further demonstrated in his almost needy response to Desdemona in the Act I Duet. Some telling details of staging were later echoed in the Oath Duet as Otello is subjugated to Iago. But the highlight of Skelton’s performance was the Act III duet with Desdemona with its mix of barely repressed violence and overwhelming grief. The climax as Otello slowly and deliberately rips Desdemona’s dress while she stands frozen in horror was far more effective than any outright assault could be. The monologue that follows was a near perfect synthesis of singing and acting and Skelton maintained that level of achievement throughout the ensuing trio and the climactic scene of disintegration in front of the Venetian ambassadors.
While any production of Otello stands or falls on the portrayal of the title role, the other members of the central trio are vital to the full success of the evening. ENO was extraordinarily fortunate to secure the services of the up and coming American soprano Leah Crocetto to play Desdemona. Crocetto was a finalist in the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World and in the opinion of many (myself included) should have won the top prize. Since then she has steadily built her career in the US and Europe but this was her long overdue UK debut. And what a debut! I honestly can’t remember being this excited by a London debut in a very long time. The voice is rich, even and gorgeously produced. It is, on this evidence, a near perfect instrument for Verdi roles. Antonio Pappano should book her immediately to sing either of the Verdi Leonoras, Elisabetta, Luisa Miller (long overdue for a revival) and, if we are to get a revival of the Herheim Vêpres, he should look no further than Crocetto for Hélène. Crocetto is also a good actress and the relationship with Skelton was movingly and subtly traced. This was no passive victim of Desdemona and she showed welcome flashes of fire in her big scenes in Act III. She crowned the evening with an exquisite Willow Song and Ave Maria. The jagged grief of her “Emilia, addio” wrenched the heart and triggered several audible gulps from audience members around me (and, yes, I was definitely one of them!). A truly thrilling debut – may she return soon and frequently.
According to internet records, Jonathan Summers is 67 going on 68. He recorded Balstrode in the Colin Davis Peter Grimes in 1980. That he is still singing full Verdi baritone roles is astonishing ; that he is singing them as well as he sang last night is nothing short of miraculous. Alden and Summers have created a truly scary everyman rather than an outsize villain. The last Iago I saw was a truly abominable performance opposite Alagna in Orange, where acting was reduced to arm folding and beard stroking, so it was a blessed relief to encounter this subtle yet frightening portrayal. Summers remained stonily impassive while the world collapsed around him. Only in the “Credo” did he allow a glimpse into the abyss of his villainy. Here Summers’ body language changed drastically to reveal the hidden horror. With his arachnoid movements he reminded more than once of Antony Sher’s bottle-spider Richard III. This was a man who shut out any joy from his life – he destroys because he can but finds no relish or relief from the destruction. The moment when he calmly sits watching Otello’s fit (later echoed when he alone remains to witness his death) is chilling in its unemotional reaction. This was the banality of evil incarnate.
It was also a pleasure to encounter a Cassio as well sung as Allan Clayton. Clayton is one of the most promising British singers around today with recent successes in Written on Skin and The Rape of Lucretia. He produced really juicy Italianate sound for Cassio as well as cutting a believably likely seducer for Iago’s plot. In this production, Cassio is a man wholly defined by his position and I like Clayton’s entirely credible descent into alcoholism after that position is taken from him. Lodovico’s horrified glance at the man that they have just appointed to Governor spoke volumes.
Inevitably the other roles are background in comparison but ENO cast all from strength. Pamela Helen Stephen, despite being dressed as Cynthia from Call the Midwife was a sympathetic and believable Emilia. The complicitly abusive relationship with Iago was an interesting take and fully convincing within the framework of this production. Peter Van Hulle was an appropriately snivelling Rodrigo who appeared to be channelling his inner Aschenbach and Barnaby Rea was suitably imposing as Lodovico.
Vital to the thrilling success of this production were the contributions of the ENO chorus and orchestra. Ed Gardner has been one of the great ENO success stories and this Otello was a new peak. London can count itself fortunate indeed that both their opera houses can field such dynamic and invigorating musical directors. Both orchestra and chorus were on fire throughout the evening and the great choral scenes in Act I and III pinned the audience to their seats with thrilling power. Equally outstanding were the individual instrumental contributions especially in the sublime woodwind lines in the final act.
While I can’t imagine ever emerging ambivalent from a David Alden production, there have been many times where I have found myself in strong disagreement with his approach to a work. I felt that his much praised Grimes, despite producing performances of enervating power from cast members, was the polar opposite of my view of the work. However this production, despite a few minor niggles, was an electrifying success. Let us dispatch the niggles : Alden tends to treat the chorus as an entity rather than individuals and while this was thrilling in the elemental power of the storm scene it worked less well in the chorus of celebration where there was no evidence of any gioia and not much fuoco, if one was honest. Set against that was the heady violence of the drunken brawl and the contained menace of the court in the big Act III scene. I was happy to see there was minimal wall clutching in this production but, in compensation, there was some impressive furniture abuse. However the only major doubt was the semi-dreamlike movement of the comprimario characters in the final scene and the cutting of their vocal interjections on Otello’s stabbing himself. However that is a small cavil set against the power of the overall show which must rate as one of the most tautly directed shows at ENO for some time. A triumph.
(Photos: Francis Loney)