by Rachel Beaumont

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Kaufmann yes; everything else, not sure: Otello at the ROH

The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Stalls Circle Standing D43, £20
2 July 2017
ROH page

Monitoring the ROH YouTube account you see a lot of anti-Kaufmann activity. I guess this is the inevitable flipside of Kaufmania, amplified through the internet. Read enough of that stuff and you begin to doubt yourself. Is he over-hyped? Is he destroying his voice? Is it just because of his looks?

No. It's an easy answer. Kaufmann has such a good sound, is such a good musician. He is quite quiet in the first two acts, made more problematic for me by my wretched false economy of buying in the acoustically stifled Stalls Circle. But – of course – he's been saving himself for the final two acts, and unleashes all kinds of wonderfulness particularly in 'Dio, mi potevi scagliar'. The sound is so nourished and nuanced, has so much colour while being always attractive in a way that makes the heart throb. I've heard no on else like him.

Pappano is almost the ideal comrade, his only weak spot being a tendency in the first half to urge the orchestra to more than Kaufmann is willing to take on (though this too might be made worse by the Stalls Circle). Otherwise (and even perhaps in this respect as well) this is the sort of reliably Verdian turn Pappano is so good at: precisely articulated, superbly paced and implacably driven.

I enjoyed Marco Vratogna's performance as Iago (unlike some of my aficionado friends) but I (not quite as badly as they) kept getting caught up on how different the production would have been had the originally cast Ludovic Tézier remained in the role. Tézier and Vratogna couldn't be more different, either as actors or as singers. Vratogna's buffo approach – essentially presenting Iago as a psychopathic Leporello – makes a lot of sense with the music but is at odds with the production's severe designs. I wonder also if it unsettled Kaufmann, who is uncharacteristically hammy.

Maria Agresta as Desdemona pours forth a shimmering liquid sound, with a tendency to croon. I kept on waiting for her to put her back into it, which she almost did in her final scena (maybe I can blame the Stalls Circle again). The smaller roles are all well cast, with Young Artist Thomas Atkins as Roderigo in particular promising excellent things to come.

For the past few months there's been a magnificent lion of Venice ensconced in the build area outside my office, and I mean magnificent: beautifully made and surely four meters high if it's an inch (distances though never my strong point). What a prop triumph, I thought to myself. What talent. It turns out all that talent is spent for a single roll across the stage, this majestic beast in view probably for a maximum of five minutes. Ditto an elaborate ship silhouette, seen for even less time and most likely invisible to a considerable portion of the audience.

Absurdly intricate props used only once can be very effective, I know. But in Otello I find a distracting disconnect between director Keith Warner's obvious erudition in person and what results on stage. Everything we saw, from the set's whisper-quiet sliding grills to Emilia's bizarrely enormous wig, was incredibly well made, and all credit to the craftspeople who made that happen. But I had no idea what story this production wanted to tell. With exquisite craft, it was going through the motions.

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