Magazine article The Spectator

Do I Lack Sophistication?

Magazine article The Spectator

Do I Lack Sophistication?

Article excerpt

It would be an exaggeration to say that Otello has fallen on hard times, but fair to claim that its reputation is not what it used to be. When I was getting to know about opera, it was taken for granted in operatic circles that Otello was Verdi's masterpiece. There were dissenting voices, such as Stravinsky's, who always preferred the rough and tumble of the middle-period works; and there were those who regretted that Verdi included such things as the mandolin chorus, even the Brindisi, because they showed his reluctance to break away from the old forms. And the hugely extended double aria for Desdemona at the beginning - in fact it constitutes most of the act - of Act IV is a regression to Donizettian indulgence of the prima donna, though it is hard to wish it away, especially the great farewell cry to Emilia, one of the moments in world drama that, once heard, one can't do without.

It is certainly not a revolutionary work, but it is a remarkably deeply felt one, and in a good production one of the most upsetting and harrowing operas in the repertoire. Yet when I told a most sophisticated opera buff how much I was looking forward to going to the Royal Opera's production at the Albert Hall, he seemed to regard me as a suitable case for treatment, not on account of the venue or the cast etc., but because he was shocked at my lack of sophistication. With Otello the old questions still get raised: how could he, Otello, be so thick, how can Desdemona fail to realise that mentioning the name of Cassio isn't welcome? The case most brilliantly stated, both against the opera and the play, by Shaw.

The point - one which would be readily granted in the case of many other operas, so that I don't see why it isn't here - is that though motivation and intelligence are unimpressive the enacting of the states that the leading characters are in, their confrontations and their monologues, are extraordinarily penetrating: anyone who fails to find Act III of Otello agonising should be condemned to an eternal diet of psychological realism.

There are not many other works which so impress and depress one with the need that human beings have for absolute certainty about one another, the readiness they have only to be certain about what will hurt them most, the desperate gusto of their actions once they are sure how much pain they can inflict, the conviction that they can get closer to someone by tormenting, wounding, even at the tragic limit killing them than by bringing them joy.

It was thanks to the Royal Opera's production that I had these thoughts, though it was the programme-book more than the performance itself which prompted serious reactions. …

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