Before settling on the title "Otello," Verdi played with the idea of calling his second-to-last stage work "Iago." Wednesday's production by the Vienna State Opera showed why.
Like the Shakespeare play it is based on, the opera focuses on the Moorish general and his wife, Desdemona, and their story of love gone wrong.
But the despicable Iago is easily the most fascinating character. His web of lies about Desdemona ultimately accomplishes his fiendish goal — making Otello believe that she's unfaithful, leading him to kill her and then take his own life.
Iago is the puppet master, pulling the strings of all the main characters as he goes about his work. Falk Struckmann, the consummate villain in so many operas, was in his element in the role in Wednesday's premiere.
Struckmann's baritone dripped with menace as his Iago proclaimed: "The evil I think, and that which I perform, I think and do by destiny's decree."
And his acting Wednesday enforced the destiny of a man born to raise hell: As Iago gloats over Otello, felled by his agony over what he believes is Desdemona's infidelity, Struckmann's facial expression was the perfect mix of haughty and hateful.
As Otello, Johan Botha could not compete against such mastery Wednesday — and he didn't seem to try, at least as far as his acting was concerned.
His face was frozen in a glare for most of the three-hour evening, and his body language was muted. Not so, thankfully, his voice, a powerful tenor that was reedy at first in the upper registers but grew in timbre and suppleness as the evening progressed.
Also stilted at first, Krassimira Stoyanova gradually opened up as well. Her "Willow Song" — Desdemona's haunting premonition of the death to come at the hands of her husband — was a vocal highlight of the evening, beautifully rendered, with just the right blend of longing for life and resignation to her fate.
Most of the supporting roles were no more than adequate. But Nadia Krasteva shone both vocally and dramatically as Emilia, Iago's wife.
And the other stars of the evening? They were in the orchestra pit.
Conductor Daniele Gatti and his musicians found just the right blend of powerful brass, melancholy woodwind and strings alternately light or sinister (as in the foreboding double basses marking Otello's final entry before he strangles Desdemona). They, along with the principals on stage and the choir — a key component of any Verdi opera — got a huge, and prolonged round of applause.
As for the staging, it was too subdued for some in the traditionally finicky Vienna audience — and not enough for others.
Christine Mielitz was greeted with a mix of cheers and jeers for her heavy use of lighting and a backscreen that was alternately gloomy gray, fiery red or fleecy white to reflect the moods of what was transpiring on stage.
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