OTELLO – THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE DOWNRIGHT UGLY – a good-natured rebuttal
Some interesting debates around the recent “Otello” prompt me to break my rule about “reviewing” friends and colleagues and rivals in the same industry. I was struck by how different the perception of a performance can be. Every one has their own opinion and that’s the beauty of it, and I for one, love the dialogues that ensue. So, herewith my humble take on the production.
As a performing musician, I no longer go to a performance to encounter it in some “pristine” condition. I do not believe there is some original Otello or Giovanni that has to be encountered. There is no central work of art that has to be reproduced. There is only interpretation. I don’t go to see a great work in a museum, I go to see an interaction between our time and the time of the creation. When I go to see “Otello”, I’m not interested in seeing the same “Otello”. I want to see something that makes me re-think what I thought I knew about the work. Otello is not entertainment. Opera and art is not entertainment. For me these are existential commentaries which are fundamental to my position in the world. Yes, I take it that seriously.
That is why, with some reservations, I feel this production succeeds.
The “Voice of the Nation Ensemble” is simply breathtaking. Power, Volume, drive and drama, they musically stole the show. I can’t find praise enough for the work Albert Horne is doing with them.
Sarah Jane Brandon made her debut in a major Verdi role. I expected to enjoy her voice, but was prepared to see a young and relatively inexperienced Verdian test herself in a major role which would take another decade to reach full maturity. As a debut performance, it blew my socks off. Not many singers can hold an audience for a 20 minute solo scene. My only real problem directing-wise, was all the kneeling on the bed. For the rest, the role is in itself rather one-dimensional. Vocally it is so challenging that it was quite enough for me to have Desdemona sing superbly and present the character-colours in broad strokes.
As for Iago, I was “worried” about George Stevens. I have worked with him in Mozart and couldn’t imagine such a lovely gentleman playing a Verdian Villain. We didn’t get the conventional dark villain. Instead, we got something far more sinister: that Iago we all know. The little old lady who rules the cafeteria, one of the secretaries in the boss’ office – the one who doesn’t pass on your messages, a bank-teller that can look up your balance but just doesn’t have to help you, even one of my fellow-teachers at one of the schools where I taught, who runs with a gossip-snippet to the headmaster’s office, hoping to gain some favour with the powers that be at the expense of the innocent. They all look so innocent. The suicidal suggestion during the Credo was a stroke of genius. Of course Iago is a man on the edge. That he killed himself and not Otello made perfect sense. The jig is up. Traditional evil Iagos will forever more seem one-dimensional and easy.
I also emjoyed all the surveylance imagery. Iago doesn’t do much except observe a lot of the time. In a world where it is now illegal to publish photographs of illegal activities in the oil and food industries, it is clear that evil is not as obvious and on the surface as the storybooks led us to believe.
I must make special mention of Violina Angeulov. Disclaimer: she is a friend and regular colleague. I just LOVE her on stage. She has the magical ability to not only inhabit her character, but also to instinctively understand the role of that character in every scene. She has the ability to hold the attention without distracting from the main action, and then seems to disappear into the scenery when she needs to disappear. The scene where she takes center stage right at the end was THRILLING. Most Emilias sound old and tired and past their peak. Not this one. She imbued those often melodramatic lines with such beauty and drama I have never heard in the great recordings. She elevates every minor role into a major one.
Derrick Ellis did a great job as the poor yobbo Cassius. His singing was better than one often gets in this “secondo” tenor role and he played the slightly dumb blonde very well.
I only saw the Italian Otello. He was WHITE! Where was the Moor of Venice? KABANG! RETHINK REQUIRED! Suddenly one wonders about the race element in the opera. How much of one’s understanding of the opera/play is dependent on the fact that he has to be black? Well. I recognised Otello. He was a man I had seen so often growing up: A teacher, someone’s father, brother or uncle, a religious Minister, a school principal. He was an absolute CARBON COPY of the Afrikaner Milleu in which I grew up. WANNABE heroes. Heroes flawed to the core, with limited capacity for self-reflection or introspection. Rape, violence, guns all around, parenting and husbanding by a sharp forehand smack, the ubiquitous military. It all rang too true. We have the highest incidence of family-killings in the world. There’s an Otello on the street where I live. My son calls him the troglodyte and I’ve forbidden him to even go near this man. Indeed, he has instructions to run when he sees this man coming. The post-traumatic stress of the South African Apartheid Army came through as loud and clear as the criticism of the actions in recent memory of the American military implied in the Aircraft-carrier. Mad White Men doing Mad White Things. I was not angry with Iago in this production. I was angry at Otello. Otello is not a victim of Iago’s manipulation. He is a victim of his own flaws. His inability to BE the moor – inhabit the space of the real hero, the alphamale, the warrior – but instead being a rather feeble-minded shell of sexual prowess, aggression and violence parading as masculinity – was for me exactly the power and point of this production.
As for his voice? I seriously did not go to the Opera expecting anything but disappointment. This role is as big as it gets. The next step up is Fidelio or Wagner – a very different voice type to any other Verdi. Not even Aida asks this much from a tenor. There are maybe 5 or 10 real Otellos on the planet. There is a reason why Domingo sang this role across the planet hundreds of times and no one else does or did. And someone like Jonas Kaufmann we just cant afford here. So. I expected to be disappointed on one level. And when he started singing I thought “Ok, this is not THE Otello of Otellos – swiftly moving on…” I enjoyed his struggle. A man trying to be a hero, a lion, and just not quite cutting it. There was something affecting in the difficulty. And that said, given many tenors I have heard at CTO over the years, he didn’t do that badly. All the notes were there, intonation secure, he kept what power he had to the end.
The military garb in which this Otello was presented brought up many of my childhood memories and horrors. I grew up doing cadets at school and my brother went to the army. We visited him in the army camp. Not allowed to move outside the designated areas. Don’t step beyond the line, don’t question, don’t look. Get in, visit your brother, and get out again. You’re in the army now, boy. And this army was used to help oil the machinery of apartheid. Even seeing the military uniforms made my throat tighten with tension and apprehension. It cannot bode well. I agree that there was no real sense of “urgency” in the opening choral movements on stage, but in a war in which you do not believe, there are no heroes, no victims. Only collateral damage and perhaps a pension plan. Boys conscripted into an evil machine do not feel great urgency about the possible sinking of some military bigwig’s boat. The futility of it all was handled very well. The very fact that there was nowhere to move, made me focus on the music more.
The one scene that didn’t make sense to me was the children’s chorus, mainly because I couldn’t see what was going on and why they were there.
Mention was made of a “wearying parade of macho men in uniform being maimed or killed in one dreadful way or another”. Yes, welcome to my world. That’s how I grew up, and that’s the world many people still see around them. Young people I knew being killed in the Army fighting a battle they didn’t believe in, or were brainwashed to believe in. And coping with the depression mainly through alcohol and abusing women. I didn’t think the fighting scenes were good – they never are on stage. I just accept that this is the obligatory “here is where we pretend to fight” bit and listen to the music and hope it will be over soon. So perhaps, this “reality” view is not why some people go to the theatre? Perhaps they want escapist art? I don’t. Perhaps I do sometimes, but I would never put Otello in that category.
I do not find any beauty in Otello in the conventional sense. Shakespeare created an archetypal lab-experiement which we witness the inevitability of a Meerkat and a Snake sizing each other up in a glass box. You might move this prop or that, but you already know that it won’t end well. There will be blood on the glass, the question of exactly whose, purely academic. There is no “gasp of beauty” in the sense you get in Traviata or Boheme. Otello stands unique – the gateway to Wagner, the door to the 20th century. We do not yet have the psychology of Alban Berg. What we do have is a giant work, chiselled from archetypal marble – as much of a challenge as ever, on so many levels.
The orchestra was simply superb. The audience was rude and noisy. The aircon was too loud. The interval serving areas need to be streamlined. And still, an unforgettable evening. A privilege to hear this work. The final word on the subject? Not a chance…
Visit Cape Town Opera’s Website HERE