On the premiere of ‘Otello,’ the Met’s mixed bag of a birthday present to Verdi

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Renée Fleming as Desdemona in Verdi's 'Otello.' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
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Yesterday or today (the date is disputed), Giuseppe Verdi celebrated his 199th birthday.

Next year he and Richard Wagner, the other blustery giant of 19th-century opera, will share a bicentennial, and the musical world will also mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Verdi’s worthiest heir, Benjamin Britten.

Italy’s birthday boy can be grateful that the Metropolitan Opera has revived Elijah Moshinsky’s 1994 production of Otello, his penultimate opera, instead of gifting him with a gimpy contraption that cost millions and drew near-unanimous jeers, as the company did for Wagner and his Ring cycle. (Otello has four more performances this month and five more in March of next year.)

With sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Peter J. Hall, Moshinsky’s production (now staged by David Kneuss) is both compelling and straightforward. It is apt, too, drawing on the rich but subdued palette of such Venetian masters as Titian and Gentile Bellini and setting the drama on Cyprus, where Verdi and Shakespeare envisioned it. A cult-site for the goddess Venus, evoked as the morning star in the opera’s love duet, the island is thus a bitingly ironic setting for a tale of shattered devotion. What’s more, it belonged to the wanton Venetian Republic, which deemed prostitution a service to society, offering one reason why Othello so readily believes that his wife is a “cunning whore of Venice.” (Verdi, pitcured at left with Victor Maurel, who created the role of Iago in Otello, called Shakespeare “papa,” as today’s opera folk in turn dub Verdi. While revisionist stagings can be illuminating, sometimes father really does know best.)

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While the visuals at Tuesday’s Otello premiere were satisfying, musical matters were less so. At the interval, a Met spokesman announced that Johan Botha was suffering from allergies and asked for understanding. The tenor sang the strenuous title role beautifully at the house in 2008, but last night struggled with its highest reaches, rarely spinning a smooth legato line and seeming preoccupied more with his own vocal survival than with the Moor’s tribulations. His best singing came in the third and fourth acts: he delivered the soliloquy “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” as Verdi indicated, “with a suffocated voice” and in a desolate monotone (most tenors overplay this scene and distort the vocal line), and he brought a shellshocked vulnerability to Otello’s suicide and last words of love to the blameless wife he has murdered.

Also returning from the 2008 cast is Renée Fleming as Desdemona. Her Willow Song last night was a miracle of vocal beauty, clothed in diaphanous tones and tender half-tints, and she drew tears in the “Ave Maria,” burying her face in the immaculate wedding gown that Desdemona lays out on her bed as she awaits her death. Elsewhere Fleming indulged her well-known tendency to over-inflect words and musical phrases. In the Act III duet with Otello, “Dio ti giocondi, o sposo,” she seemed more a Venetian fishwife than an aristocrat, and in the love duet that concludes Act I, her skittish way with the music undermined the youthful, sensuous grace with which she soothed and caressed her overwrought husband.

While Iago is often played as a snarly, snaggletoothed villain, Verdi saw the role quite differently. Before the Otello premiere in 1887, he wrote to a friend that the ensign should have “a manner that is absent-minded, nonchalant, indifferent to everything” and should “throw off good and evil sentiments lightly, as if he were thinking of something else altogether.” The Met’s Iago, Falk Struckmann (pictured with Botha at right), came closer than any baritone that I have seen to embodying Verdi’s ideas. He planted his seeds of evil and then observed calamity unfolding with chilly detachment, impassively echoing Otello’s words in Act II and steering him towards murder with seemingly benign solicitousness. A superb actor, Struckmann delivered little in the way of vocal glamour but, to his credit, made the trills and octave leaps that he does not command vocally tell dramatically of sneers and contempt. He also blessedly underplayed Iago’s “Credo,” delivering librettist Arrigo Boito’s tenth-rate, épater-la-bourgeoisie bombast with a shrug and a snap of the fingers. His was an imperfect but gripping and deeply intelligent portrayal.

James Morris, once a celebrated Iago himself, sang well as Lodovico, as did the other secondary players (Eduardo Valdes, Renée Tatum, and Luthando Qave) in their roles. Cassio, however, is not a minor part, and the Met accordingly cast Michael Fabiano, an artist of substance with a penetrating voice, as the dashing lieutenant. Eleanor Fazan’s choreography was memorable, showing the audience the Act I revelers from Cassio’s tipsy, unsteady perspective.

Semyon Bychkov’s enervating tempos drained Verdi’s blazing score of life. Sloppy playing and missed cues abounded, and the love duet, normally an oasis of peace and bliss in a violent drama, here presaged the tragedy to come with its dark, uneasy colors. The enchanting singing of the Met’s children’s chorus went for little in the Act II serenade of Desdemona, buried in the sluggish, opaque ensemble wrought by the maestro, and the Act III finale lurched and lumbered like Mahler at his most distraught.

Overall, it was a mixed bag of a birthday gift for the evergreen genius that is Verdi.

‘Otello’ is in repertory through October 27 and returns in March 2013 with José Cura, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Thomas Hampson in the principal roles. Tickets at 212-362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org. Photo of Botha and Struckmann by Ken Howard.