Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Otello

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Otello

Article excerpt


ENO, in rep until 17 October

Anna Nicole

Royal Opera, in rep until 24 September

So how did London's two big opera companies launch their new seasons last week? Not perhaps in the way you might expect. Decked with pink balloons and the acrid smell of popcorn, the Royal Opera House waved the garish contemporary flag with Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas's Anna Nicole of 2011, revived before a youthful opening-night crowd attracted by specially subsidised tickets. It was left to the friskier English National Opera to offer a new production of sober mien and an audience containing some people who dressed up. Standard repertoire, too: the opera was Verdi's Otello -- filled enough with base passions, but not with phrases like 'douchebag' or the delightful 'skid-marked panties'.

The Coliseum threw the best party, by far. David Alden's latest ENO venture in a relationship now going back 30 years contains enough of his trademark quirks, but remains at heart rock-solid. Jon Morrell's towering set and Adam Silverman's dramatic lighting sat us down in the distressed interior of a fortress church, with characters' menacing shadows occasionally thrown on to its gaunt grey walls. The time period? Early 20th century. Furniture? Little more than two tables, plus an armchair for Otello to hurl: he likes being very physical. Indeed it's in his muscles and tempestuousness that the otherness of Alden's Moor lies -- certainly not in the pallor of Stuart Skelton's skin.

A 'whitewashed' production, then. Nor is this one that makes much play of religion, despite the Act Three moment when Iago and Cassio start using a Madonna icon as a dartboard. Yet this light skating over race and religion still doesn't drain power from the show, nor from Skelton's performance. Brooding stage charisma, vocal punch, dramatic fireworks: the star of Alden's ENO Peter Grimes gives us his all. Possibly too much so at times: when he flares up and flings his furniture, Otello the warrior hero risks seeming just a troublesome teenager throwing a tantrum. We need to glimpse more of his internal life.

There is plenty of firepower elsewhere. Jonathan Summers makes a marvellously duplicitous Iago, garlanded with malevolent eyebrows, dressed like a communist agitator hotfoot from Brecht. His voice is convincingly harsh and world-weary; and he spreads black bile even when distantly sitting in Alden's disorientating climax, calmly observing Otello's final agony as if waiting for a bus. …

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