Bartlett Sher’s production of Verdi/Boito’s Otello returned this season to the Metropolitan Opera repertory for the first time since its well-received 2015 unveiling. Sher, in the very top ranks of Broadway directors, has mastered the complicated and sometimes treacherous art of the informed revival, showing keen insight and a knack for revelation in works as disparate as Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady (currently enjoying a prosperous run next door to the Met at the Vivian Beaumont Theater), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and The King and I, Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy and August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, each of them enchanting.
Sher’s Otello is noteworthy on several counts. The design is by Es Devlin, a superstar whose translucent modernist sets for theater, opera and rock concerts are as psychologically revealing as the sliding panels, interior stairways and secret passages that are simultaneously hidden and exposed. With its abstract storm sequences projected on those Lucite walls and the sly suggestions of classical architectural forms, this was no Franco Zeffirelli-inspired dive into lux verismo. (Nor was it as disengaging as Andrew Lieberman’s military barracks setting two years ago for director Sam Gold’s off-Broadway staging with David Oyelowo as Othello, Daniel Craig as Iago and Rachel Brosnahan as Desdemona.)
Sher and the Met management also agreed on a historic change regarding the title role. Since the opera’s 1887 premiere in Milan, white singers portraying the “Moor of Venice” used makeup to appear black, a practice as offensive today as “blacking up” was in the days of minstrel shows and vaudeville. (Of course, this also was the case with actors playing Othello in the Shakespeare play.) The Met’s new production would be the first to abandon the practice.
That such a move seemed radical in 2015 is a statement unto itself. But precedent could be found in the opera’s history, for it was Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, who cut out the most racist elements of Shakespeare’s tragedy – including the entire first act, in which Desdemona’s father, scandalized by his daughter’s marriage to a “thick-lips,” rails impotently against the “savage” who has charmed her with spells and potions.
It may be apostasy, but I’ve always found the opera’s cultural context more tolerable than the play’s. Verdi’s and Boito’s concision sharpens the tragedy, unsettling as it is. I was lucky to have seen, in my salad days as a stand-in usher at the Met during the 1970s, when John Dexter was head of production, an incomparable succession of Otello casts, topped by the Canadian great Jon Vickers in the title role, Katia Ricciarelli as a luminous Desdemona, and Sherrill Milnes as an all-but mustache-twirling Iago.
None of which you have any reason to care about. I attended Sher’s production during an auspicious moment for the director – just after the opening of his production on Broadway of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. This time at the Met, one of the calling cards was the debut of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, among the world’s most celebrated conductors, leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an adrenaline shot in the faltering heart of classical music.
Dudamel did not disappoint, leading the unmatchable Met band in a performance of extraordinary balance between robustness – those storms, and stormy scenes! – and exquisitely delicate intimacy. If you put aside reservations about the story – which the playwright Paula Vogel marvelously travestied with her mock-tragedy Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief – the un-Verdian Verdi score, with its continuous dynamic aural topography, ranks among the richest in Italian opera.
With one significant exception, the performance onstage wasn’t up to the one in the pit. Tenor Stuart Skelton, slated for the title role, missed both the opening night and the one I attended. His replacement, Carl Tanner, was sturdy but bland, unconvincing as a conquering war hero brought down by sexual jealousy. Željko Lucic, who has sung Iago since the production’s debut, is interesting but – sorry – not malignant enough. His aria “Credo,” a centerpiece of the opera and one of the great expressions of European nihilism, struck me as pallidly intellectual. If I want intellectual, I’ll read Sartre.
The exception was the young American soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, who sang Desdemona (at this one performance only), scaling the opera’s daunting final act, from the Willow Song to the Ave Maria, with crystalline beauty and delicacy.
While I admire the concept of Sher’s staging (and remain, weeks later, agog at the orchestral performance), the staging suffered from lack of rehearsal, with the performers at times seeming lost in the shifting maze and some awkwardness in their interplay that detracted from the fated sense of build-up necessary for the opera to achieve its full emotional impact. The machinery seemed to want more breaking-in. Perhaps that will come.