By Francisco Salazar
(For the October 16, 2012 performance)
It's been four years since they presented Otello at the Met, Verdi's penultimate opera. The opera known for it's daunting title role is rarely performed due to the lack of tenors singing the role in the world. On this night the originally scheduled Johan Botha cancelled due to illness. In came Avgust Amonov, a Russian tenor who made his Met debut on the previous Saturday the 13th. Amonov proved to be a mixed bag. He took a little while to warm up in the role as was seen with his entrance Esultate which sounded tentative, lacked the volume and when he was forced to hit the daunting B natural; Amonov held the note too long and eventually screamed the end of it. This was no heroic entrance. Then came his second entrance in which he must restore order after the chaos that Cassio has formed. The character should be angry and should be the main focus of the scene. But Amonov lacked any imposing force. Amonov's Abbado le spade was once again tentative and was hard to understand or hear as he was upstage. At the end of the first act Amonov sang some tender lines during his act one duet with his Desdemona. Here he shared some tender exchanges with Renee Fleming. He sang some ringing pianissmi when the un bacio moment that made you feel that he was really in love. However it was a shame that the orchestra did not build that moment (more on that later). The second act proved a disappointment after such a solid duet. Amonov's Ora per sempre was a rushed mishmash. Then came his duet with Jago which is supposed to a climax demonstrating Otello's rage and swearing Vengeance against Desdemona's infidelity. I could have been fooled as Amonov showed no such anger. His singing was pretty but it seemed that he was not really invested in this act. His acting was relegated to standing around or sitting at his desk. The third act brought a complete turnaround. He sang his duet with Desdemona with fury and command. One felt that he was on the verge of madness. It was shame that Ms. Fleming was not exacting on par with him or else the scene would have been perfect. Then came his Dio mi Potevi which was sung with incredible phrases. Amonov had brought the tragic qualities of Otello bringing frailty as he sang his B flat in a ringing pianissimo and then anger at the end with a powerful O Gioa. And at the end of the act three Amonov had finally come into the part as he was completely believable in a defining mad scene. If only he would have kept that same energy going in the fourth act. As Amonov attempted to kill Desdemona, Fleming brought herself to Amonov and basically asked him to kill her. It was not genuine and lacked any tension. Then there was the Niun mi tema Otello's final aria. Amonov sang for the most part with conviction but by this time it was hard to believe his suffering. All in all Amonov may have these stiff moments due the lack of rehearsal time with his cast mates. If he does sing the last two performances there will be more room for improvement.
Renee Fleming was billed as the star of the night but she was far from that. While Desdemona's character is known for being a weak character in the libretto as she is too naive and pure, many singing actresses such as Renata Scotto have combined strength and purity to give dimensions to the character. Fleming recently stated that Desdemona was not a very good character but that she liked Verdi's music. On this night Fleming looked and sounded pretty. The moment she entered the stage she sang Desdemona's music to the book with very suave phrases. Her second act quartet sounded lovely but lacked any drama. Then came her duet where it seemed she was not really involved with her partner. When Amonov throws her on the floor, Fleming was delayed in her fall. Only during one moment in the duet did Fleming show her pain and that was when she pronounces her innocence. She sang the line E son io l'innocente with passion and vigor. During the concertato she did a strong job in carrying it. Her highlight was her Salce which was sung calmly one moment and then at the another as if she was truly mad. Her Ave Maria was sung with gorgeous lines and splendid phrases but was a tad bit too slow and it became tedious by the end of it. Then her death scene was ruined by the lack of chemistry she had with her Otello where she was forced to bring herself to him so she could die. Fleming's performance was hindered by her lack of chemistry with her partners and her lack of acting. She "park and barked" the whole way through and while that was effective during the concertato it hampered the night and showed her deficiencies as an actress. It hard to pound her for the performance but overall Fleming demonstrated her coolness toward the role and her lack of involvement in the drama.
Faulk Struckmann proved to be an incredible Jago. His villainous swagger and his rough voice helped make the character believable. Struckmann possesses an incredibly large voice that helped enlivened the concertato at the end of Act 3, and the duet between Otello and Jago at the end of Act 2. Every single time he was on stage he stole the show starting with his aggressiveness during the Act 2 Quartet. He exchanges with his wife Emilia were what brought the attention to the stage. During his Credo Struckmann may just stand around but it his attention to the text that brings the character to life. His final lines e poi, la morte e nulla (death is numb/ nothingness) are sung with persuasive character and bleakness. He ends his aria with an extended F that threatened to stop the show. The audience applauded after his rendition something unusual since Verdi's music never stops.
The rest of the cast was lead by Michael Fabiano who brought a solid Cassio. I would like to see him in more substantial roles to be able to see more range. James Morris was solid as Ludovico while Renee Tatum who impressed last year in Nabucco as Fenena was serviceable as Emilia. Eduardo Valdes was actually heard in the sparse but crucial role of Rodrigo.
In the pit Semyon Bychkov demonstrated why he does not come to the Met that often. His performance was adequate at best but ultimately erratic. During every single prelude to the beginning of each act Bychkov's tempos were slow and always stayed at pianos never building to anything. During the storm, Bychkov's orchestra sounded static and never erupted into what should have sounded like a storm. Then during the duet in act one between Desdemona and Otello, the accompaniment was non existent at some moments and then over the top at some. When he had to build the bacio theme he shut the orchestra out. Then when the strings played syncopations as an accompaniment, Bychkov made the strings play forte that sounded like saws creating a strident sound that takes away the delicacy in Verdi's music. Then in act two during the quartet the orchestra never built to anything. When Otello sings his Ora per sempre Bychkov picked up the tempo as an attempt to bring intensity. What he did was hinder his singer's performance as Amonov could not keep up with his tempo. At the end of act 2 duet Bychkov had no respect for his singers and pounded the orchestra with all its power. If that was not worse, the violins sounded as if they had not rehearsed the music as the accompaniment sounded like a mishmash. Act 3 was much improved except for the transition between Otello-Desdemona and Dio Mi Potevi where the tempo lacked any urgency. Instead it sounded as if he was at a carnival playing a dance number. Not to mention the sixteenth notes once again sounded messy. And then there were the horns to transition into the ambassador scene. There was no consistency in the horns sound and they were not coordinated. The final act was languid. At the end when everyone has died Verdi wrote tremolos for 10 measures. Bychkov held these out as if he there 100 measures. It was eternal and it really didn't add any new insight or emotion to the piece. Instead it threatened to put the audience to sleep.
The production by Elijah Moshinsky continues to feel refreshing creating some haunting images and some wonderful stage coup d'theatres. However it was shame that the singers were not able to use it to the fullest of its advantages.
As the celebration begins, the Met better have more behind its back as Verdi deserves better than this current Otello. Hopefully the March cast brings more to these legendary roles.