Cher Public

A whiter shade of pale

While the celebrity-studded, expensively-dressed audience gathered for the gala opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015-2016 season seemed genuinely enthralled by Monday evening’s performance of Otello, it was more likely swept away by the power of Verdi’s genius than by Bartlett Sher’s puzzling, inert new production.  

Those who habitually whine about the supposedly off-putting “unconventional” new productions commissioned by Peter Gelb will have little to complain about here. Although the opera’s setting was moved—for no clear reason—to the late nineteenth century, Boito’s masterful adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the fall of a noble leader driven to murder his innocent wife by the conniving insinuations of a malign advisor was for the most part clearly presented.

And though Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s urgent, marvelously detailed conducting and Sonya Yoncheva’s exquisite first-ever Desdemona proved tremendously rewarding, it was difficult to see how this new vision was an improvement over the Met’s previous Otello, Elijah Moshinsky’s 1994 production.

Eschewing his usual designer Michael Yeargen, Sher turned to the eclectic English artist Es Devlin who works not only in opera and ballet but also designs concerts and videos for performers like Kanye West and Lady Gaga. With lighting designer Donald Holder and projection designer Luke Halls, she conjured a strikingly effective storm to open the evening, although the paparazzi-like flashes that greeted Otello’s entrance were peculiar—and blinding.

However, it soon became clear that her primary contribution was a gang of two-story frosted-lucite “boxes” representing architectural façades and constantly pushed about the stage by black-clad bunraku-like stagehands. These design elements were initially intriguing but soon became not only monotonous but confusing.

Just where was the second act taking place, for example? It seemed that Desdemona and Cassio encountered each other on a Cypriot street where Iago then first planted his seeds of suspicion. Then, suddenly after the quartet we landed in Otello and Desdemona’s bedroom (why? how?) where Iago recounted his encounter with the sleeping Cassio while lounging on a bed that just would not stay still.

During the third-act trio the boxes moved so much that it distracted from Otello’s attempt to overhear Iago’s interrogation of Cassio. At least the boxes vanished for the final act where the marital bed returned to a bare stage while projections evoked either roiling seas or turbulent clouds. The glass boxes, though, inexplicably reappeared for the bows!

Changing an opera’s setting to the time of the work’s composition has become such a common trope that it’s almost expected these days, but other than allowing Catherine Zuber to design some opulent hoop skirts for the ladies, the late 19th century milieu went for nothing. The much-debated decision to not use “blackface” for the title character proved a non-event, as Sher did little otherwise to portray Otello as an outsider in a society which both respects and fears him. Unfortunately, the Moor came across as just a gullible dupe.

Although the opera’s second half was more involving than the anemic opening two acts, Sher was no doubt hamstrung by his stolid Otello and Iago, Aleksandrs Antonenko and Zeljko Lucic. As the world suffers from a lamentable lack of dramatic tenors, one must be grateful to anyone who braves the rigors of one of Verdi’s most demanding roles.

In my previous encounters with the Latvian tenor at the Met in Rusalka, Boris Godunov, and Norma, Antonenko revealed a powerful, intriguingly dark instrument that he wielded bluntly but with an appealing ardor. He essayed an uneven Otello several years ago at Carnegie Hall with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony, but he was announced as unwell that evening.

Monday at the Met Antonenko was even more frustrating. While his large, penetrating tenor seems made for the role, he’s not a very imaginative or interesting performer: one is struck more by the conscientious effort displayed rather than by any special insights revealed. Not a natural actor, with a rather blank, inexpressive face, he was unable to chart Otello’s frightening, crushing decline, but then Sher gave him little to do other than the most traditional blocking.

Though he can make an exciting, trumpeting noise, Antonenko often seemed in vocal distress. He did break through occasionally to achieve some moving moments in the quieter parts of “Dio, mi potevi and “Niun mi tema.” He can’t be blamed that the opening night audience was probably thinking of another, greater Otello: the gala was dedicated to the galvanic tenor Jon Vickers, who died in July at age 88.

The all-important interplay between Otello and Iago went for little as Lucic gave another of his bland impersonations, notably lacking in bite and energy. While his large baritone sounded healthy and he sang with care and detail, his “Credo” rang false—this was no base, nihilist schemer. He took no joy in his machinations, his bland gloating over the unconscious, defeated Lion of Venice at the end of the third act displayed no triumph. As Antonenko was unable to project Otello’s nobility and Lucic Iago’s sly cunning, the devastating arc of the second act failed to make its usual impact.

Has there ever been an unsuccessful, unsympathetic Desdemona? Surely it is Verdi’s most grateful soprano role and most singers revel in it. But Yoncheva’s success was fully earned: she movingly portrayed not simply a victim but a proud, uncomprehending wife crushed by her husband’s crippling insecurities.

No longer the blonde seen in the rehearsal photos and videos released by the Met, she appeared instead in what seemed to be her own dark hair, embodying a Desdemona so voluptuously glamorous that Otello’s jealousy, however misguided, was surely understandable. Her triumph at the Met earlier this year as Violetta was clearly no fluke. Even in this first assumption of Desdemona, she was already a mistress of the role. Although one might have occasionally wished for a bit more color or for more amplitude in the soaring lines of the third act finale, she consistently sang with beauty and security.

The demanding fourth-act scena was devastating in its eerie evocation of the approaching catastrophe, and, as her previous three Met roles have shown, she knows how to die like a pro! One prays that Gelb has made sure that the young Bulgarian soprano will be a frequent Met visitor in the future.

That there was no applause after her serene “Ave Maria” was a tribute to Yoncheva and her sterling conductor rather than the scene’s misbegotten staging. Nézet-Séguin throughout the evening drew powerful and nuanced playing from his inspired orchestra and full-throated, thrilling singing from his chorus. As his numerous Don Carlo performances at the Met have shown, he can be an inspiring Verdi conductor, alive to the drama’s sweeping grandeur but no less attentive to its tender and intimate moments. Clearly the orchestra—and the audience—love him and the Met is blessed to lay claim to much of his operatic work each season. The prospect of an upcoming Elektra in Montréal this November is very enticing.

His supporting cast was a mixed bag: the usually appealing Jennifer Johnson Cano sounded uncharacteristically stressed as Emilia (perhaps this is just not her role) and Dimitri Pittas’s nervously wide-open singing as Cassio brought little pleasure. However, in a pleasing change from the usual casting of Lodovico with one of the company’s elderly basses, the Met engaged the striking, vigorous Günther Groissböck who returns next month as Hermann in the revival of Tannhaüser.

This Otello is the sixth production mounted by Sher at the Met since 2006 and, although I missed Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, his continued prominence during the Gelb years baffles me. His initial Barbiere di Siviglia has proved to be a lasting success, but his subsequent productions have been met with a combination of head-scratching and derision. Otello will do little to dissuade the nay-sayers—Sher just seems to have no point of view about the opera.

Perhaps his production will prove easy to revive and hospitable to future performers (Jonas Kaufmann, anyone?), but there’s just nothing interesting going on—we don’t discover anything about Verdi’s masterpiece that we didn’t already know. Those noisy traditionalists may be happy but the general darkness and non-Zeffirelli sparseness of the design might still inspire squawks. And those yearning for something insightful or challenging will just be bored.

Photos: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

  • Thanks for the great review. After reading Tomassini’s review, I was hopeful that Sher had at least partly demonstrated why he keeps getting big assignments at the Met. But I guess not…

    • Liz.S

      Probably Mr Gelb’s agenda is by using big name Broadway directors he can get more flow from that channel. I’m not in the position to say if it’s working or not

      Too bad another masterpiece is added yet again to that list -- ”Yikes, we have to live with that prod for another decade or so!”

  • Milady DeWinter

    I listened via Sirius and went to bed feeling fully satisfied that I had heard a very satisfactory performance of Verdi’s masterwork, chiefly due to Nezet-Seguin’s impeccable leadership, and minus any of the stage distractions cited by Mr. Corwin. The Sher staging, as seen in pictures, rehearsal clips and as described by co-hosts Mary Jo Heath and Will Berger seemed innocuous enough, but I am sorry to hear that at times it seemed to make little sense. The HD should be interesting. The look seems to be derivative of Pier Luigi Basile’s designs for the 1984 film “Dune.”

    But wow, Mssr. Nezet-Seguin and the orchestra and chorus were surely the stars of the evening. He brought out inner voicings and lines with an amazing degree of clarity, reminding me how deftly intricate Verdi’s score is, layered throughout with so many “leitmotifs” if you will, but it never seemed obvious or pedantic, just expansive, exact, and propulsive, while giving just enough wiggle room to the soloists during their “moments.” The sound of the orchestra was thrilling, and the chorus provided waves of steady, fresh sound.

    Though no cast member disappointed, I was surprised (pleasantly) by Lucic’s Iago. He revealed a new facet to his vocal personality, singing with more finesse and subtlety which I have not heard from him heretofore.

    At first I thought Yoncheva’s voice might be a little light and stressed, but she bloomed act by act, and I suspect will get even better in the role as the run progresses. I expected a teeny bit more magic in final ascent to the A-flat at the end of “Ave Maria,” but all in all she is a singer to cherish (and clearly the audience favorite, next to Seguin).

    Antonenko. Hmmm. I actually liked (and have like him before) him although the voice itself is not beautiful, at all. It is big, it is bright, it is a tad on the unwieldy side, and when he went for softer nuance, which to his credit he did often, his intonation was apt to go flat. He didn’t seem to be able to spin out the love theme, “Un bacio, un bacio ancora” very effectively, as if his vocal placement were slightly off. Still, he had no overt disasters, delivered some ringing highs, managed to articulate every one of Verdi’s indicated acciacature in the “Esultate” (and throughout), and seemed genuinely vested in the character. Usually I don’t have much sympathy for the jealous, easily duped Moor, but I did feel for him last night.
    Nice launch to a week of broadcasts which promise much in the way of vocal splendor, I hope.
    Although I will officially go on record right now with my wish that Mssrs. Alvarez and Lee were switching assignments.

  • Feldmarschallin

    Great review. Yes, Yoncheva is the real thing and looking forward to hearing her again in July in two roles if she doesn’t cancel again. Was so looking forward to that Fiordiligi.

  • moi

    I am a bit frustrated with the Met’s new page… (?)
    First , it is hard to get an overview of the season…
    and from Europe, I used to set a timer for the live streaming and go to bed… now, there doesn’t seem to be an option to open it beforehand…
    And where’s the archive?
    Enjoyed the radio program w Schwanewilms, what a classy singer.

    • Camille

      The Archives (my favorite part of the website) is located under the section that is third down:DISCOVER. It is the last category, and once hou arrive there, it is the same familiar Archive. Bless the soul who created and maintains it.

      Now if I could only find the place where they are now hiding the last-minute cancellations and substitutions Don’t know if that is only currently hnder Press Releases, or what…?

  • isoldit

    don’t blame the singers for stolid performances, Sher does nothing for his singers. he is interested in his ideas and sets and costumes and a little stage business, but does nothing to help singers explore options and shape performances, have that from a reliable source who worked in one of his premieres, He does nothing to help singers and basically leaves them to fend for themselves. it was a wonderful night musically, but Sher, while good on Broadway, simply does not know or understand opera and offers nothing but mediocrity. the audience gave a few boos but almost no applause when he came out.

    • steveac10

      You can’t lay it all on the director. Neither Antonenko nor Lucic are renowned for their stage chops. Stolid is the term I would use to describe all of the performances of theirs I have seen (and one frequently leveled at Lucic over the years). They have reasonably attractive Met sized voices that can get by in heavier repertoire. They just happen to live in fachs with little competition at this point.

  • Operanaut

    Glad I gave this one a miss. Production doesn’t sound especially enlightening. Was taken with Yoncheva’s performance while listening on Sirius, and the orchestra was outstanding but Antonenko’s portrayal was lacking in any kind of nuance or tenderness -- Act I duet just fell flat, though that was none of Yoncheva’s doing.

  • Camille

    As seen from the gigantic Times Square screen monitors, (at our return after having attended the PINK TRANSMISSIONS of Wayne’s (Koestenbaum) World, and soon to be seen at the REDCAT Theatre near the Los Angeles Music Center) — it looked, for all the world, as if Otello and Desdemona were having a pajama party pillow fight, and Desdemona was just too tired to fight back and laid down and died, like a good girl.

    I know not if the fault lies in Bartlett Pear’s directorship, or in the stars that govern the acting capabilities of Mr Antonenko (who was a perfectly credible and attractive figure as Pollione in the Norma, by the way).

    Whatever it was, I enjoyed the ads for Dames at Sea a whole lot more and will not be dropping coin on this production.

  • uwsinnyc

    Saw it in Times Square.

    Production was humdrum but the singing pretty exciting.
    What is this obsession that the MET seems to have in recent productions of sliding scrims and sets back and forth within a single scene?

    Have to say also that the sound quality, even in noisy Times Square was superb.

  • Camille

    The original of the title of this thread:

    In case you kids born after 1990 are wondering WTF is being referred to. I don’t know if that be the case as this song has stuck. Summer of love souvenir, I guess, for your parents/grandparents.

    • DerLeiermann

      Why, thank you for explaining this title reference. I think my mom knows this song, but in spanish! What a nice tune.

  • williams

    First rate review as usual Mr. Corwin. Not so sure about the comments regarding the Met sized voices of the gentlemen though. In my second row left of center orchestra seat only the superb Yoncheva really cut through the orchestra. The male leads seemed underpowered to me but perhaps it was just an acoustic anomoly.

    • Rowna

      The cavernous Met auditorium does not deliver uniform sound. I have sat everywhere in the orchestra and Grand Tier, with a wide variety of results. Under an underhang is the kiss of death for enjoyment. Too close is also not good. Once you get to the balcony things seem to even out. And while I am here on Parterre I have a few comments: First, I was in and out of the chat. The most disturbing thing was the criticism of YN-S. He was called out for going too fast, having the orchestra play too loud, you name it. From my computer, it was an exciting performance driven by the orchestra and its conductor. Most Parterrati did not like the Otello, and I have to say, none of the critics really did him in. It was NOT an opening season voice. I have not like Lucic from the first I heard him (Rigoletto?) and found his Macbeth a tad better. He just doesn’t have a snarly voice. Yoncheva was a breath of fresh air. You knew she was going to deliver all the vocal goods from her 4th act scena. And she is so young! My God -- that woman has a huge career in front of her. I only wish her good health and lots of vocal successes.

      • williams

        I’ve also been everywhere in the house and noticed the seemingly random nature of the sonic experience. Close on the left (violin) side is usually ok. Unlike most cognoscenti I’m not fond of high in the family circle (uninvolving). Usually opt for a balcony box at around the same price level. Agree that under the overhangs is poor. Center orchestra from rows G to T is usually reliable but the far sides can be iffy. Given an unlimited budget center parterre is always nice but that fiscal challenge isn’t for every night. One thing that has come along in the last 15 years or so is the weird projection/lighting devices hung on the boxes. As was the case last night their cooling fans or whatever can be annoyingly audible.

  • la vociaccia

    I think Sher is quite overrated in musical theater as well. His calling card appears to be baiting nostalgia by creating facsimiles of every summer stock production his audience members grew up watching. His ‘King and I’ was indistinguishable from any production I’ve ever seen of it, down to the last costume.

  • Porgy Amor

    Christopher, this is so far the best review I have read of the Otello opening, and on audio grounds, it is the closest to what I heard in the broadcast. Antonenko is doing better in the initial spate of write-ups than I was expecting. I thought he was going to get rough handling. This was the performance I was expecting (and, frankly, feared) after I listened to the rehearsal clips in recent weeks.

  • La Valkyrietta

    Great, even fabulous, conductor, horrid production, Vickers much missed. Those awful transparent white walls that kept noisily moving around all night were just upsetting, even worse than the Ring machine, if you thought that was not possible. :(.

    Anna arrived with no necklace but during intermission she was wearing what looked like a very expensive one. She seemed fascinated with it and took selfies. Could anyone enlighten me about that necklace? Perhaps knowledgeable charitable manou? IFor me it is a puzzlement.

    • manou

      Thank you for the undeserved compliments -- Anna has an advertising contract with Chopard, so she might have been highlighting one of these:

  • Our Own JJ considers this Otello in the Observer.

    • As usual, this is twice the review that TT wrote in the NYT.

    • Signor Bruschino

      Amazing review- spot on

  • erricco

    I couldn’t agree more with JJ about what I heard online. It was painful to listen to Antonenko………reminding me of Richard Cassily’s disastrous Act 1 many years ago.

  • Ruby

    Right on the button review: congratulations!

  • La Valkyrietta

    I liked JJ’s review. The praise for the conductor is well deserved, I’m sure. Terror with elegance. Love the interesting sonorities he brings out of the score. I hated all that light flashing on the audience during the storm, the more so when we ended up with an anemic Esultate,. I agree Antonenko had many good moments, but did not convince. I could do without the noisy sets even if I like the notion of ghostly castles.


    Thank you, Anna must have been wearing a Chopard necklace that I did not recognize in the images you posted. Someone suggested me that for security she brought it in her purse :), but it would not have fitted there. Some official representative probably provided it temporarily in the house.

  • Camille

    Since I nearly had a Fatal Encounter locating this book last night and since it has a chapter of great interest and help in regard to the opera Otello, I would like to just mention it on this thread: by Gary Wills (NOT a musicologist), it is published by Penguin Group, 2011, and entitled Verdi’s Shakespeare — Men of the Theater —. It consists of three main chapters, I Macbeth, II Ot(h)ello, and III Falstaff.

    The portion on Otello is broken down thus:
    a) Rossini’s Otello,
    b) Boito,
    c) Othello‘s and Otello‘s First Performers,
    d) Cosmic Reach,
    e) Cosmic Ruin, and
    f) Between Cultures.

    There is an interesting and informative Introduction “Comparative Dramaturgies” at the front of the book.

    Not sure what the Cosmic Reach is all about yet as I have not read it but I certainly would know enough about Cosmic Ruin to write a book on it, myself.

    Hopefully it may be of some interest or help to you in discovering new aspects in this new production of a new idea of “Ot(h)ello”.

    I now have to depart for the podiatrist to see about my cosmically ruined right foot, so adieu.