Cher Public

Leaving blood on the shirt

The debate over live transmissions of opera to cinemas in HD isn’t going to go away. 

Actually, the debate feels as if it probably will. The transmissions are not going to go away any time soon, and before too long there will be a generation of operagoers who grew up with HDs. There will come a time when the idea you could only ever see an opera in the house or on video will seem as alien and distant as the concept of affordable seats.

And I’m not sure I buy the argument that it prevents people from attending the opera. Watching the live relay of Otello in the cinema of the new Storyhouse in Chester, England (attached to a theatre where I’m lucky enough to be working at the moment) it struck me that very, very few, if any of the cinema audience would have made the 400 mile round trip to London for tonight’s performance.

I myself, who usually live in London, would have been unlikely to be in the house too, because it being a Kaufmann performance (and a role debut, to boot) there would have been no seats left by the time tickets went on general sale.

So it doesn’t feel as if potential income is being squandered at all by the idea of live relays by the houses themselves; rather it feels as if they’re generating income they wouldn’t otherwise have. It feels like that because that’s exactly what’s happening. (Whether or not the HDs harm smaller local companies is a bit of a moot point as far as the cinema I was in tonight is concerned, because there isn’t a smaller local company).

The question remains, then, whether tonight’s cinema audience is more or less likely to book tickets for a live opera on the basis of what they saw tonight. And if they were guaranteed a performance of tonight’s quality, the answer is resoundingly “more.”

In addressing the components of that performance, I’m not going to tease you. I know what you want to hear. And you’ll be pleased to hear that yes, he is. This is the right time for this singer to take on this role, and it’s one I hope he revisits often in the rest of his career. Kaufmann belongs to that rare class of singer who can sing Otello without making it sound difficult.

I was constantly struck by how much the part plays to his particular vocal strengths, a topic the singer himself and Antonio Pappano touched on during the interval feature, where they talked about how often singers have to fake the “baritonal” opening of “Gia nella dotte densa.” Kaufmann went on to do a spot-on impersonation of, well, those singers you’ve heard faking that bit, some of whom were very large and are now dead.

Kaufmann’s voice encompasses all the colour you need from an Otello, and as usual in Italian opera he is at his most impressive when required to sing at full throttle. If an Otello needs to be able to pin you to the wall with power and also to caress a vocal line—which of course, he does—then Kaufmann provides everything one could want.

And yet, and yet. The frustrations that seem to come as a package with this great singer are never far behind. The tendency to micromanage, to strive for effect, to arrest us with his artistry are all present in Kaufmann’s Otello and I found myself thinking, not for the first time, that someone needs to tell him that saying “look how delicate and refined I can be” is often as vulgar as bellowing and belting.

Kaufmann the singer has always lacked the art that conceals art, and it is this which mars his dramatic portrayal of the character, too. Instant to instant, he is a strong actor. When he needs to be sad, we get “sad;” when he needs to be angry, we get “angry.” But he never loses himself in a character. Kaufmann’s Otello is the same person as his Cavaradossi, his Don Carlo, his Chenier, his Alvaro—a dashing, sensitive, intense man to whom Things Happen.

Otello’s tragedy is that he’s manipulated into losing all control, while Kaufmann, as ever, whether wowing us with a gorgeous messa di voce or fixing us with the patented Jonas Thousand Yard Stare (you know the one) is all control, all the time.

The conductor was Antonio Pappano, and I’m going to let you guess whether (a): he once more demonstrated that nobody currently before the public better understands Italian opera, or (b): see (a).

Marco Vratogna, tonight’s Iago, will never in his entire career sing one line as well as any one line sung by Kaufmann. But in many ways his performance was weirdly more satisfying than the hugely more talented Kaufmann’s. Vratogna is fun. He’s having fun, and he’s letting us see that. There’s a contract being made between performer and spectator in a way that there never is with Kaufmann, who invites us to View His Art.

Vratogna is also an excellent actor, especially in listening mode, a crucial skill for an Iago. He’s made decisions about every line he sings and every line he hears, and knows how to put them across. HD transmissions are brutal in exposing moments of blankness, and Vratogna had none. I mean, look, it’s not a great voice. At the beginning of the evening he sounds how you’d expect a great singer to sound at the end of one—and then the voice gets tired.

But he knows how this music goes, and rides the climaxes well, and makes some arresting if broad choices with vocal colour. There’s a Cetra-mono-box-set vibe about him that I can’t help but respond to. And he made something genuinely chilling of the end of the Credo—suddenly terrified of what he had said, as if not knowing where it might have come from—which made a moment which can be a less-than-subtle set piece into something more complex and (hell, I’ll say it, I’m a thousand words in) Shakespearian.

I’ve been disappointed with Maria Agresta in the past, but her Desdemona is pretty much all one could ask for. Vocally she is close to ideal—she has the delicacy and the beauty of tone for the duet and the Ave Maria, plus the near-spinto power for Act three and the end of the Willow Song. I’d be hard pressed to find anything to criticize in her singing.

As an actor, however, she had to do a little to win me over after the duet, for reasons that I now accept are not entirely her fault. Here is a list of things it’s really, really hard to convey on stage: Simple goodness. Radiant happiness. Unswerving sincerity. Overwhelming love. Desdemona has to pack all those into a few lines, and wear them on her face as she listens to a lot of tenoring.

Agresta just tried that bit too hard, with the result that she looked almost scheming—someone who didn’t know the music might have watched the duet and concluded she wanted to get him into bed so she could steal his wallet in the morning. Director Warner then gave her some really unhelpful blocking—standing upstage with Cassio before “Cio m’accora” bathed in peach light like something from a seventies shampoo ad, or later in that same scene entering with Emilia holding arms, unspeaking, then occasionally turning to smile at each other for no reason like every undirected Fiordiligi and Dorabella you ever saw.

But as the evening went on she barely put a foot wrong. She allowed herself to be a little tougher and stronger than most Desdemonas, giving us a woman who was trying to work out what was happening to her rather than setting phasers to “wistful and sad.” Her Willow Song had a real narrative to it, an urgency. This wasn’t maudlin reflective nostalgia, this was someone who needed to understand why this old song and old story wouldn’t leave her head. It made her big moments, as she said goodbye to Emilia and in the subsequent Ave Maria, all the more moving; she spent the opening of Act IV slowly and painfully making peace, in front of our eyes, with the fact that she was about to die.

These moments of performer insight, sadly, seemed to happen despite rather than because of Keith Warner’s production. To start with, it was overdesigned (Boris Kudlicka responsible here). We are in that familiar operatic territory known as IKEA land—sliding screens in blacks and browns, made up of asymmetric planks, or template-like cut outs. Everything in clean, straight lines.

Two of the most prevalent of current operatic clichés were present and correct: the black masker slowly dropping to close off rectangles of coloured lights on a cycloramic backdrop, and a moment of random graffiti (DESDEMONA REA! CASSIO DUCE! ECCO IL LEONE!) to indicate, you know, the collapse of society and stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, the set looked handsome enough, but there was never any sense of place, either geographically (so important in this opera when nobody is at home) or in terms of the action—until the final scene no space was recognizably inside or outside. Neither in design nor direction was there any sense of the military, either: and if Otello’s not a soldier, then he’s Just Some Guy, and if Iago is not someone with whom Otello has faced death a hundred times, he’s Just Some Guy The Other Guy Believes Weirdly Easily.

Costumewise we were dealing with a kind of Modern Tudor—the whole doublet and linen thing. Some people were costumed fully in period (Vratogna, for example) some in a mixture (Kai Ruutel’s excellent Emilia looked like a cross between a Vermeer and the Handmaid’s Tale), and some in Standard Operatic Timeless Nowhere (Frederic Antoun’s Cassio—leather trousers, long black I’m-in-an-opera coat, hair and make up by Derek Zoolander).

And, look, I’m getting bored with banging on about lack of directorial logic in opera, but there was so much on display here—the chorus spotting the ship as it sailed on behind them, for example, or a massive marble lion being slowly dragged on stage (by just two people, I should add) and then straight off again, so the chorus were singing the praises of Venice near but not at the final position of a moving statue.

There were baffling little moments of alienation, too: Desdemona first appeared during the storm on a moving elevated platform which swung in and out again; she then entered for ‘Dio ti giocondi’ from the substage via a stage lift. Who can say why? And there was even that most Zefferellian of touches, an acrobat doing backflips in not one, not two but three choruses, because it’s boring if more than two people are singing.

The failings of the design and direction coalesced in the final scene. The boutique-hotel bedroom was a nice touch—stylish but soulless, a nowhere place to die—but it only took up a third of the stage, the rest of it being filled with a steel staircase and gate on which stood a smashed-up version of the lion statue from the previous scene.

The fact that the bedroom set stood on a movable stage truck created a very distinct space—surely the space that would trap Desdemona and leave her with no escape. But no: the darkened steel area was also somehow part of the bedroom, so Othello entered through it and –disastrously—at one point in the final confrontation Agresta stepped off the truck, wandered round a bit, then walked back onto it.

She had a clear, unimpeded route to the door which led to safety, but instead ambled back towards the bed singing “Please don’t kill me.” This kind of thing is still way too prevalent in opera stagings. It’s avoidable and it’s a little bit insulting.

Warner saved his best for the very end, however—the murder and suicide were both credibly frightening, as was Vratogna’s casual slitting of Ruutel’s throat. (Sidebar: why did Boito and Verdi get Emilia so wrong? She’s one of the best characters in Shakespeare and for a composer who specialized in morally conflicted but ultimately penitent mezzos, she should have been a gift.

Making Iago force her to give up the handkerchief, rather than persuading her, is such a misstep: why would she not go straight to Desdemona and say “Okay, a weird thing just happened…” It’s only her complicity that keeps her silent until it’s too late, and in her decision to tell the truth, including the truth about her own guilt, she eventually becomes the moral centre of the play. In the opera she sings some frenetic accompanied recit and that’s your lot.)

There’s a trick with some blood for Otello’s death which I won’t spoil for you, but it makes the end of the evening as horrifying and as moving as it ought to be; the final stage picture is a thing of harrowing beauty.

And then, in the curtain call came a little moment that served as a metaphor for the whole evening. Kaufmann, whose white linen shirt became saturated with blood in the opera’s final moments, came on to thunderous applause. But now he was wearing in a new, pristine and freshly pressed copy of the shirt.

  • simonelvladtepes

    Thank you for a stunning (and very entertaining) review.

    Kaufmann currently is more comfortable with broader tempi. When you compare how Asher Fisch supports him to what Pappano does you hear Pappano’s genius. There is no one today who can do SO WELL what he does:support a singer and yet maintain the momentum despite having to slow down. It’s an ungrateful aspect of a conductor’s job, because all the audience usually hears is what impact the conductor has; very few hear how a conductor has to work around singers’ limitations. With Simon Keenlyside’s ROH Macbeth Pappano had to work with a singer barely qualified for the role in a house that size, and he managed the magic of playing (literally) to that singer’s strengths (stamina and long breath) and bypass the weaknesses (over-parted). Yet, I don’t think people noticed Pappano’s genius of making it possible for Keenlyside to present a respectable Macbeth.

  • grimoaldo2

    I am late to the party but also want to say thanks for this review, a pleasure to read.
    I have never been to an HD transmission of an opera, or anything else, in a cinema, I keep thinking I should but somehow have not brought myself to do it yet despite the untold numbers of live operas I have gone to. It doesn’t really appeal to me, if I am going to watch something on a screen and listen to music through speakers I can stay at home. I realise that I am far from typical in that way.
    Chester is one of my favourite cities in England, I hope you can visit the exquisite cathedral while you are there, if you have not done so already.
    Stunning ancient carved wood choir stalls --
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_Cathedral#/media/File:Chester_Cathedral_Choir,_Cheshire,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg

  • Robin Worth

    I did not see the HD transmission, but was at the house on Thursday and your review is absolutely accurate