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WILL AND ME: Verdi's Otello (2013) Review

Updated on January 5, 2018
The poster for the production.
The poster for the production. | Source

VERDI'S OTELLO (2013) REVIEW:

CAST: John Botha, Renée Fleming, Falk Struckmann, Michael Fabio

CREW:

Conductor—Semyon Bychkov

Production—Elijah Moshinsky

Set Design—Michael Yeargan

Costume Design—Peter J. Hall

Lighting Design—Duane Schuler

Choreographer—Eleanor Fazan

(Cast and crew information courtesy of Nova Cinemas in Melbourne)

***

Here I am once again, reviewing a live theatrical event, brought to us live via the silver screen. I’ve reviewed performances from The Royal Shakespeare Company; I reviewed performances from The National Theatre and Broadway; now it is time for me to review a performance from another popular theatre company that has grazed our cinema screens since 2006: The Metropolitan Opera in good old New York City.

Their latest screening was part of their (or possibly, part of Nova Cinema’s) encore season, featuring performances originally recorded during their 2012/2013 season. The opera that I viewed was Giuseppe Verdi’s musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, set to a very dry libretto by Arrigo Boito.

Entitled “Otello” (I have no idea why they dropped the H in the title. Is it an Italian thing?), the opera tells the story of a Muslim general (Otello, played by John Botha) residing on the island of Cyprus who has been blessed with the fortunate things in life: A heroic reputation; respect from the community; a high military rank; and a blissful relationship with the beautiful Desdemona (Renée Fleming). This fortunate lifestyle does not sit well with one of Otello’s men, Iago (Falk Struckmann), a racist ensign who has been denied a promotion to become captain of the Cyprus navy, something he blames Otello for. Fed up with his commanding officer getting all the “undeserving” power and glory, Iago begins to use his cunning to punish Otello by putting a cloud of mistrust over the relationship between him (Otello) and Desdemona.

Since this is actually the first time I ever saw the opera, most of this review isn’t so much an opinion article about the production I viewed, but primarily an opinion article about the opera as a piece of sheet music and lyrics. This review is about Otello as the 1887 opera, and not as the 2012/13 Metropolitan Opera.

I

As I have mentioned already, I found Arrigo Boito’s libretto dry and not at all inspiring. The dialogue is juvenile, the arias rarely move the plot along, there is a lack of verse and metre (a problem I have with just about every opera in existence), and the one scene to each act structure (something that is yet to have an official literary status) completely minimalizes what should have been an epic piece of musical theatre.

(Or, to discuss this in further detail: There are four acts, and each act takes place in just the one location, similar to how the plays of Oscar Wilde and Arthur Miller usually had two or four settings, and became the main location for each act. There is no “Act 1: Scene 1; Scene 2; Scene 3. Act 2: Scene 1; Scene 2; Scene 3. Act 3: Scene 1; Scene 2; Scene 3” here. There is only “Act 1: Scene 1; Act 2: Scene 1; Act 3: Scene 1”.

(Though I am not saying that it’s a terrible way of storytelling, but I personally think that it only works if you’re either writing a straight play like The Crucible or Lady Windermere’s Fan, or if you just happen to be a bloody good script writer in ANY theatrical genre! And since Boito’s writing skills are questionable and do not make a great first impression, the one scene to each act structure that this opera follows clearly doesn’t suit what the text that this guy has produced.)

The only positive accepts of the libretto that I could find was the opening musical number, Una vela (or “A Sail” in English), and just about every aria given to the character of Iago. They are the only aspects of this opera that come close to reading like verse lyrics. (Then again, since I don’t speak Italian or any other foreign language associated with opera, maybe I am annoyed with the opera libretto because of not hearing it sung in the language that I do know, thus doesn’t sound musical to my ears. But on the other hand, I could still be proven right if I did hear the text in English!) These numbers have rhythm and opens the door to pure epicness and great character development.

Though the words do not exceed many expectations, the musical score of Giuseppe Verdi himself does! His compositions are soothing, exciting, emotional and beautiful in every way. Everyone has talked about him as a musical genius, and I have to say….I agree with them!

He’s the man he doesn’t need that much of an analytical discussion. (Or, in other words: I can’t think of anything else to say about his genius, so let’s move on.)

II

Now, the time has come for me to share what I thought about The Met’s recent interpretation of the opera: It was as unmemorable as going to the bathroom after a few bottles of Pepsi!

The sets were great (though they sure take a to be put into place during each scene/act change….which makes me question why they don’t just do the Broadway and West End thing of having the sets put in place through wires and gears without interrupting the performance), the costumes were laughable and embarrassing, the direction was practically non-existent (which would explain why the programme I picked at Nova doesn’t mention any director), the curtain call they did before everyone went off to intermission was unnecessary and inappropriate (I sure hope it isn’t an opera tradition), Falk Struckmann gave us such an awesome and sly Iago (even better than Shakespeare’s Iago I have to say), Renée Fleming was innocent but unmemorable as Desdemona, and John Botha’s Otello….

Well, let’s put it this way: He’s a fantastic tenor and a well-trained thespian, but he looked completely miscast in the role! I don’t mean to sound shallow or anything, but a chubby Otello just doesn’t work. (And trust me, I am overweight myself, so what I say isn’t prejudice, but common sense!)

Otello (both the Othello of the Shakespeare play and the Othello/Otello of the Verdi opera) is meant to be a fit and unique human being, and Botha is far from it! A lot of the time, his size makes his performance rather sluggish in movement and very downplayed. And to add insult to injury, Botha is in fact a white guy wearing brown make-up. (Gee! Like that isn’t racist or anything. Go in to see a grand opera, come out with the feeling that you’ve just seen George Mitchell’s The Black and White Minstrel Show!)

I have absolutely no idea why the people behind this production thought it was a good idea to cast an overweight white man in the role of Otello. Did they base their casting on voice instead of basing it on physical appearance to go with that voice? Surely he couldn’t have been the only person to audition for this role!

All in all, this was not a brilliant production. Like its libretto, it is dull and will be forgotten as time goes on. The only real geniuses here are Verdi, Falk Struckmann and Michael Yeargan (the show’s set designer). They are the REAL stars of the show!

John Botha as the most offensive Otello ever seen!
John Botha as the most offensive Otello ever seen! | Source

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