“Well, if he doesn’t cancel . . .” snapped the sour quip of opera cognoscenti all over the world. “He,” of course, is the renowned German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, whose propensity to cancel performances over the past few years has disappointed many audiences and done some damage to his reputation and career. New York has not seen him for years, and will not see him as originally planned next season in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, reportedly due to scheduling conflicts during the production’s rehearsal period. But here in London, despite all the catty doubts, Kaufmann certainly did keep his commitment and made a stunning role debut in the title part of Verdi’s Otello. The composer had wanted to call the opera Iago, since it is the great Shakespearean villain who really drives the action, but the tragic anti-hero is so compelling that there was no sensible alternative. And what a role it is—its high tessitura mixes with a thrillingly desperate need for baritonal authority. The vocal challenge and extreme dramatic requirements make performing the part the highest aspiration for any dramatic tenor, and since the opera’s premiere in 1887 very few have mastered it.
It is no exaggeration to say that Jonas Kaufmann falls into the category of performer—probably not exceeding the single digits over the past century—who can rightly claim to be in the gold-star category of Otellos. With bracing tonalities well suited to his Wagner roles, Kaufmann drew on a smoky, mahogany sound to deliver the role with a charge not heard since the heady days of Placido Domingo’s triumphs of more than two decades ago. From his one-line entrance, “Esultate!” (“Rejoice!”), it was immediately clear that Kaufmann follows firmly in the tradition not only of Domingo but also of Jon Vickers, Ramon Vinay, Mario del Monaco, and Giovanni Martinelli, arguably the only other superb exponents of the role available on audible record. Dramatically, Kaufmann offered a studied performance with tremendous poise that avoided the all-too-common tendency to degenerate into soapy melodrama. Indeed, in Verdi, as in Shakespeare, one of the work’s most harped-upon weaknesses is that Otello morphs from noble hero to homicidal maniac in the course of a few hours. Kaufmann’s inherent dignity allows for an intriguingly cerebral processing of his predicament. Murdering Desdemona seems almost a necessity. When he pounds on the floor after “Dio mi potevi scagliar,” the character’s great aria of regret and deluded realization, it is less out of uncontrollable pain than a careful focus on duty.
London audiences will long remember Kaufmann’s debut, but his fellow principals were exceptionally well chosen. Maria Agresta is moving on from the bel canto roles for which she has been best known to more sophisticated dramatic parts. Her Desdemona was an entrancing mélange of soft, creamy tones delivered on what could only have been perfect pitch. The Willow Song and “Ave Maria” preceding her death were mesmerizing. Marco Vratgona took on the role of Iago after Ludovic Tézier dropped out. The performance was solid and affecting. Just as Kaufmann did not overdramatize his damaged character, so, too, did Vratogna avoid the temptation to turn Iago into a snarling villain. Supported by thrilling baritonal ascents, this Iago was a practiced psychopath, remaining alluringly controlled and even courtly up until the moment of his exposure. Normally called upon to flee the scene in a pathetic attempt to escape justice, here he slashes his wife Emilia’s throat and stabs Montano and other courtiers before being apprehended.
Keith Warner’s production seems to be yet another of those stage efforts better designed for the movie theater broadcast than for those willing to pay the price to attend live. Almost monochromatic, it features sleek walls with oblong apertures that rarely serve any purpose. A statue of the iconic Venetian lion appears in various stages of destruction to shadow Otello’s descent into wrath. The effect is almost comically obvious. But for the most part it was a relief not to have too much distraction from the performance’s excellent singing, enhanced as it was by the brilliant choral leadership of the newly arrived (from the Deutsche Oper Berlin) William Spaulding. Antonio Pappano led a measured performance, though the Royal Opera’s orchestra rarely rises to truly Italianate levels of passion.
A few days later Covent Garden revived Andrei Serban’s colorful production of Puccini’s Turandot with the star soprano Christine Goerke in the title role. It is hard to emerge from the shadow of Franco Zeffirelli’s famed Metropolitan Opera production, which is still alive despite the renovating tendencies of the house’s current administration. And indeed, the comparative visual effect is underwhelming. The action takes place within the confines of a tiered wooden theater, with the chorus looking more like spectators to the work than singers there to perform in it. Reliance on rather cartoonish puppetry relates the central element of the story—the fate of the impassioned suitors who die for their failure to answer Turandot’s three diabolical riddles—but there is enough space to allow the intense human drama between her and Calàf to emerge. Goerke brought greater nuance to the role than fans may remember from her Met performances of 2015. Relying on flawless technique, she echoed a sadness that reminds us that this character—so often portrayed as a narcissistic psychopath—is in fact vulnerable and terrified. Her great entrance aria “In questa reggia,” in which she lays out her whole story, reminded us plaintively of how dangerous damaged people can truly be.
Aleksandrs Antonenko made for a fine Calàf. Just as Zeffirelli’s production overshadows all others, so do Luciano Pavarotti’s standard-setting performances dominate impressions of the tenor role. Antonenko’s muscular voice and powerful characterization were sui generis but lacked nothing in power; his Calàf is without a doubt the best I have heard since Pavarotti’s. “Nessun dorma” resounded with tremendous strength. Hibla Gerzmava sang a Liù who truly deserves the pity she never receives. But was it really necessary to have her lifeless corpse carted across the stage as the lovers rejoice in their mutual admiration at the end?
A fine vocal evening nearly compensated for the unfortunate conducting of Dan Ettinger, who led the performance with tempi so slow that they threatened to bore one to distraction. Many of the great moments were missed, but this was hardly the fault of the singers.