Monday, January 7, 2019

Met Opera: Gustavo Dudamel Conducts Otello

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Otello, the first time I'd seen this masterpiece since 2015 when the current Bartlett Sher production premiered.  I've always considered this late work to have been Verdi's finest achievement and, along with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the greatest of all nineteenth century operas.  With a libretto written by Arrigo Boito, himself a major Italian composer, it has so much power and freshness that it seems more the work of a artist still in his twenties than that of a revered idol already in his seventies.

That Otello was composed at all was a huge accomplishment considering Verdi's state of mind.  After having completed Aida in 1871 and the Requiem in 1874, he had decided to retire from any further musical composition.  Much of this had to do with the state of Italian music in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Though it is difficult to believe now, considering how venerated a figure in opera history Verdi has become, he and his work were actually quite controversial in Italy in the late 1800's, a situation referenced by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz in her biography of Puccini.  At the time, Verdi was seen as the leader of the "old guard" who stood in the way of progress.  A group of progressive artists, known as the scapigliati, sought to modernize Italian music by incorporating into it current trends from France and Germany and while so doing railed against the traditionalism represented by Verdi.  Ironically, it was Verdi's future librettist Boito who took the lead in this movement.  As Phillips-Patz writes:
"In 1863, though, Boito ripped a large hole in the fabric of Italian culture by insulting Manzoni and Verdi, Italy's revered 'Old Men.'  He delivered his outrageous slap at them during a banquet organized to honor Faccio and his new opera, I Profughi Fiamminghi, for which Ghislanzoni was the librettist.  Near the end of the evening Boito read a long ode to the health of Italian art.  In it he railed against the older generation and added an offensive line that Verdi never forgot.  The old men were, Boito said, 'scrofulous' and 'idiotic,' and they had left 'the altar of Italian art soiled like a whorehouse wall.'  Not surprisingly, after this event Verdi cut Boito out of his life for about twenty years."
Verdi, for his part, resented what he saw as the newcomers' lack of patriotism.  It was at least partially his disgust with the incessant bickering that determined him to give up writing music.  In any event, he had already composed so many timeless classics that he had nothing left to prove.  His reputation as the greatest Italian composer was secure.

It was only through the combined efforts of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, horrified at the thought of the money his firm that would lose if Verdi were to retire, and a repentant Boito, his arrogance curbed by the failure of Mefistofele, that the composer was convinced to set to work once again.  The enticement was the possibility of staging an opera based on a Shakespearean tragedy.  Verdi had always been a fervent admirer of the English playwright, though his earlier adaptation of Macbeth had not been a resounding success, and could not refuse the bait.  Not only did he compose Otello but afterwards returned once again to his Shakespearean sources when in 1893 he completed his final opera Falstaff.

As far as the cast was concerned, Stuart Skelton was a resounding success in the title role, though his performance still fell a bit short of those given by Plácido Domingo in the 1980's when the great tenor electrified audiences with his portrayal of the tragic Moor.

There were also two familiar faces from the 2015 performance I had previously attended - soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the role of Desdemona and baritone Željko Lučić as Iago.  When I posted on their 2015 performances I wrote as follows:
"Sonya Yoncheva was a big surprise as Desdemona.  I don't remember ever having heard her before, but she was magnificent here and I'll look forward to any future engagements in which she may appear.  Željko Lučić had the pivotal role of Iago.  The part requires not only great singing and acting but psychological insight as well.  The singer must be able to penetrate the depths of Iago's dark mind in order to make the character convincing to the audience.  Lučić managed to do this extraordinarily well.  He not only did full justice to the singing but also made Iago a totally believable presence rather than a merely two dimensional villain."
The real star of the afternoon, however, was conductor Gustavo Dudamel making his Met debut on the podium with these performances.  While attention is most commonly paid to singers, one cannot really appreciate how exciting an opera can be until one hears it interpreted by a truly great conductor.  Here Dudamel fully brought out the intense drama at the heart of Verdi's music.  The storm that opens Act I is a metaphor for that which rages in Otello's mind in the later acts, but the motif must be carefully developed throughout if it is to be brought home to the audience.  Dudamel accomplished this perfectly.  His success only empahasized more clearly the Met's greatest problem at present - the lack of skilled conductors at most productions.  

As I mentioned when I last saw this production, the sliding glass partitions reminded me of nothing so much as the chic facades that pop up one after the other on Columbus Avenue storefronts.  Also, I didn't find the images of waves shown on the projection screens to be particularly imaginative,  (At times, they reminded me more of drifting layers of cigarette smoke.)  Nevertheless, as long as nothing got in the way of the singers or the action there was no reason to complain, most especially as the current production was the first in Met history to abandon the odious use of "black face" in Otello's makeup.  

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