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December 11, 2017
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Verdi’s Otello in Venice

Verdi’s Otello, at the Palazzo Ducale.
Verdi’s Otello, at the Palazzo Ducale.
Verdi’s Otello, at the Palazzo Ducale.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald
The Festival Plaza Vaticano sometimes presents rather quirky things. One of them was Verdi’s Otello staged — according to the quite insufficient press release — at Venice’s Palazzo Ducale. No mention of principal singers... my first thought was: why Verdi’s and not Rossini’s? For the latter’s opera takes place wholly in Venice, but Verdi’s is always in Cyprus. (Only Shakespeare’s original play gives us both).
The Palazzo Ducale announcement is a half-truth: it makes you imagine the Palazzo’s Great Hall (54 metres long) and think: even if it’s impressive, is it big enough to accommodate an orchestra (certainly with no pit available), choir and stage design? And an audience? And would the city of Venice allow such perilous use of a historic building?
As it happened, the Palazzo Ducale’s imposing façade  was used at certain points of the opera, for there are stairs leading to a long gallery-balcony, but the main action was at the piazzetta that goes from  the wharf to San Marco Square. The logical venue should have been the Theatre La Fenice, which seats 1,500 people — why the open air?
Of course, the choir and orchestra of La Fenice were the interpreters, and their conductor was the redoubtable Korean Myung-Wha Chung (the brother of violinist Kyung-Wha Chung), whose character of convinced Verdian I can vouchsafe, for I was at La Bastille decades ago when Chung conducted his last Simone Boccanegra before leaving the post of Chief Conductor of the Paris Opera.
The open air is never good for opera, even if amplification is well handled, as it was in this case. The orchestra was placed to the left and the singers had to deal with the uncomfortable ideas of stage director Francesco Micheli: for the soloists, basically a chain of narrow planks on trestles (not even a bed for Desdemona in the Fourth Act) plus a small rounded area in which they were very close to the orchestra. The gallery was used as a belvedere for announcements: the initial storm on the arrival of the Venetian ship in the Third Act. The choir moved freely at ground level.

Selling point
I can understand why the Palazzo Ducale is a selling point, but frankly it doesn’t work for Otello: when I visited Famagusta’s port in February 1972 and was shown “Otello’s fort” (quite as false as Hamlet’s fort in Helsingör or Romeo and Juliet’s balcony in Verona) I found a fort in front of the sea — not a magnificent palace overlooking a lagoon. And of course in the Third Act the Venetians are supposed to arrive to Cyprus.
The military costumes we see are certainly handsome, especially those of Otello, but completely out of historic context: they look like late 19th Century when they should evoke the 16th (the whole story has to do with Venice’s war against the Turks for the control of the Adriatic and the Aegean).
The dramatic handling goes rather well in the First Act but gets more and more arbitrary starting with Iago’s Credo (the marvellous Boito addition to Shakespeare) where he is surrounded by demons (Otello will be later). Iago from then on is a malignant presence in scenes where he shouldn’t be, and matters worsen in the great Third Act concertante, when incredibly Desdemona undresses in public until she is clad in the nightgown of the Fourth Act! There’s more to come: Desdemona dies and immediately her ghost rises and later provides the dagger for Otello’s suicide. His ghost rises too and they go out hand in hand...
But there’s at least a good reason to watch and hear this Otello, unbeknownst to the audience and to this reviewer: Otello is interpreted by arguably the best current exponent of this terrible role: Gregory Kunde. The power and timbre of his voice are perfect for the part and his acting is always strong and accurate: he is in the great line of Vinay and Domingo. Baritone Lucio Gallo, tall and gaunt, sings and acts well. Carmela Remigio has a good line as Desdemona though she grimaces too much. Elisabetta Martorana (Emilia) and Francesco Marsiglia (Cassio) are good, and the others do a correct job.
As expected Chung phrases like the committed Verdian he is, with adequate response from orchestra and choir. La Fenice isn’t quite in the level of La Scala but it is an important operatic centre along with Rome and Naples.”                                        w
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Edition No. 5055 - This publication is a property of NEFIR S.A. -RNPI Nº 5343955 - Issn 1852 - 9224 - Te. 4349-1500 - San Juan 141 , (C1063ACY) CABA - Director Perdiodístico: Ricardo Daloia