Magazine article The Spectator

Master of Deception

Magazine article The Spectator

Master of Deception

Article excerpt


Master of deception


Royal Opera

Così fan tutte

Royal College of Music

The Birds

St Andrew's, Holborn

Supposing many of the Royal Opera's recent productions of Verdi remain in the repertoire, it will be interesting to see how well they weather. I suspect that few of them will show the staying power of Elijah Moshinsky's Otello, with set designs by Timothy O'Brien, which was first mounted in 1987, but still not only looks handsome and spruce, but has also served for a wide range of singers. I notice quite a few alterations from revival to revival, but that may be how associate directors earn their fee, or just my fallible memory and capacity for noticing things. The latest revival features Ben Heppner making his role debut in London, and was to have also starred Renée Fleming, who however withdrew from the first two performances. I can only regard that as gain. If Desdemona fails to come across as guileless, utterly lacking in worldliness, then she is nothing more than an annoying fool who dim-wittedly fails to notice that Cassio is a touchy subject with her husband, and who has unfailingly lovely music to sing, the most consistently beautiful, possibly, that Verdi awarded any of his heroines.

Whatever qualities Fleming may be thought to possess, lack of knowingness is not among them. A mcgastar isn't required here. Even her Marschallin was all too archly aware. No doubt her fans by now have lavishly welcomed her return, nonetheless. On the first night we had Amanda Roocroft, unfortunately not in her best voice. Desdemona may be a size too large for her anyway, though her performance gained stature as the evening wore on, and she was good, if not great, in the hideous scene with Otello at the beginning of Act III, and in the whole of Act IV, which in any case is largely a concert for Desdemona, quite out of scale with the rest of the opera.

The grizzled Moor himself was even more grizzled than he intended, his voice in unreliable shape, letting him down in some of his crucial moments. He failed to make much impression with his opening proclamation, and that's enough to throw anyone. But Heppner has delved deeper into this part than he normally does, in my experience, and though nothing new was discovered, the portrayal of the tormented animal was quite vivid, certainly leaving me, as Otello should, with a stricken sense of the absurd dreadfulness with which people treat one another when they feel that they are being deceived, and then become addicted to the notion. Heppner sang the whole part, never resorted to rants or sobbing, and died with agonised dignity. …

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