Met in HD’s ‘Otello’: Too-dark sets can’t conceal brilliant cast

Soprano Sonya Yoncheva, tenor Aleksandr Antonenko shine in lead roles, while guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is sensational in the orchestra pit.

Aleksandr Antonenko (Otello) humiliates Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva) in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi's “Otello.” (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

NEW YORK, Oct. 20, 2015 — The Met in HD’s latest simulcast theatrical offering is the company’s current production of Verdi’s “Otello,” as staged in a somewhat pedestrian manner by Bartlett Sher.

The good news: whatever the New York critics’ initial misgivings about the cast, last Saturday’s live simulcast performance featured a cast of primary singers in top form who showed up ready to give this difficult but rewarding opera their best.

The bad news: Aside from Es Devlin’s innovative sliding translucent rooms that symbolized political deviousness while allowing for wonderfully rapid scene changes, this marked the second Met/Verdi simulcast in a row where this production’s characters-singers often had difficulty emerging from the grey murk of the lighting scheme.

Željko Lučić as Iago and Dimitri Pittas as Cassio in Verdi's “Otello.” (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Željko Lučić as Iago and Dimitri Pittas as Cassio in Verdi’s “Otello” (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

It’s as if the Met has decided to head back to the kind of hopeless, postmodernist Euro-gray productions the Washington National Opera forced on audiences here for years, indicative of the kind of hopeless inaction that seems to plague all the elites in the Western world these days. But why impose this kind of nihilism upon the many vital and very much alive and involved characters that populate operas and theatrical events and represent the passion and vitality of times past?

Just as problematical, for us at least, was the Met’s executive decision to forego the traditional theatrical makeup that is applied to any white tenor taking on the decidedly black role of the Moorish general Otello (Othello, of course, in Shakespeare’s original).

Even in a decade where political correctness, victimology and “trigger warnings” seem to have run amok amongst both politicians and the elite, why neutralize the importance of Otello’s race as a key, driving element in this towering tragedy? Contemporary Otellos in blackface are not vaudeville caricatures of minstrel singers and never were. They remind us of one of the major reasons behind Iago’s hatred and lust for revenge.

Methinks that erasing this key element from this and future Met productions of “Otello,” as Peter Gelb has decreed, is just the latest in the continuing revisionism that’s begun to eviscerate the meaning and the matter that lie just beneath the surface of our contemporary literature and art scene.

Ultimately, this is a major-minor matter in this production. It doesn’t particularly detract from the powerful performance audiences witnessed over the past weekend at movie theaters around the world. But it’s just one more unnecessary step in the unnecessary diminishment of Western culture, all in obeisance to some kind of misplaced and undeserved sense of Western guilt. Enough of this grandstanding already.

I’m done. For now.

At any rate, with opera at least, we always have the singing to bail out any attitudinal or theatrical malfunctions, and the singing Saturday was terrific. In this performance, the real star of the show was Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who sang the role of Desdemona with such deep passion and emotion that it broke your heart, even if you’ve already seen many an “Otello” before.

Her big Act IV showpieces, the “Willow Song” and her reverent but fearful “Ave Maria,” have rarely been sung with such touching, knowing sadness and resignation. Brava!

In the 30-something Ms. Yoncheva, the Met may very well have discovered its latest rising superstar. Indeed, the company could offer no greater proof of this than her smashing performance in this production—her first ever in the challenging role of Desdemona.

Tenor Aleksandr Antonenko’s manic-depressive portrayal of Shakespeare’s heroic but disastrously flawed Moor was a hellishly perfect match for Ms. Yoncheva’s touchingly warm and ingenuous heroine. Boasting a clarion-clear instrument with diction and acting chops to match, Mr. Antonenko’s Otello was so blind to Iago’s manipulations and his own impending disaster that you wanted to leap out of your seat, race up to the stage and throttle him back to reality.

Of course, it’s hard to do that, particularly when Otello is merely an image on the silver screen. But this was a production to make the passions and feelings surge forth in a rush, and much of it was due to the stirring portrayals of Shakespeare’s ill-fated couple, as brilliantly portrayed by Ms. Yoncheva and Mr. Antonenko.

We note that at least some critics attending the earlier live performances of the opera saved most of their ammo for baritone Željko Lučić’s portrayal of the villainous Iago. Whether their initial perceptions were well-grounded or not, of course I can’t really say. But in last Saturday’s simulcast performance, I felt Mr. Lučić sang this role quite convincingly.

Better—or worse, depending on your politics—I also felt that he channeled perfectly the flat and soulless amorality that seems to drive most of our current crop of politicians here in Washington. His was a flesh and blood Iago who could not only succeed but thrive in today’s political environment. As such, his character and his portrayal of Iago struck home here as perhaps it did not in New York, which deals with a different level of villain.

Mr. Lučić’s gravelly-voiced, passionate yet almost passionless Iago looks out for number one and for number one alone. He’s in this to win and to obliterate his enemies, perceived or actual. He’s a cold psychopath, and anyone or anything else, including his own wife, is just so much collateral damage, subject to the fate that befalls all pawns in a master chess player’s opening charge. We’ll see his game played out again in Election 2016.

In lesser roles, the Met’s supporting cast couldn’t have done better. But best of all, the already renowned Metropolitan Opera Orchestra seemed to be at the top of its game under the baton of guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, on loan to the Met from his current nearby gig as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a position he’s held since September 2012.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s friendly, almost joyous approach on the podium almost succeeds in concealing his uncanny fierceness on behalf of the score at hand. Under his direction, the orchestra here effectively became the Greek chorus for this production, boosting a powerful emotion here while ominously undercutting a character’s erroneous perceptions there. We suspect he’ll gradually become a familiar figure in the Met’s pit in seasons to come.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

Run Time: 3 hours 50 minutes (approximate)

Ticketing: Just click here “Buy Tickets” button. Alternatively, For advance tickets, information and theater locations visit the Met’s website. If online ticketing isn’t available for your location, you can purchase your tickets by visiting the box office at your local participating cinema. To the best of our knowledge, ticket prices in most venues are $25, an astounding bargain for anyone who’s familiar with purchasing seats to a live performance.


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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17