Deliciously bleak, Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (★★★★☆) is unceasingly pessimistic, the kind of Washington National Opera production (via the English National Opera, Royal Swedish Opera, and Teatro Real Madrid) that befits a jaded eye and a cynical soul. Seen amid the untamed rapids of the political climate and an angry, polarized populace, it suits a gloomy mood.
Setting the action somewhere in or about the early 20th century, Otello still resides in his Cypriot castle, but the mammoth walls are aging, and the light is stark, suggesting already that this will be no place for tender mercies. Lighting designer Andrew Cutbush’s work becomes ever more pivotal in the intense atmospherics of this piece, allowing a man’s shadow to grow ominous, filling a room with unforgiving clarity, or casting a single shaft on its prey. It’s the perfect complement to the sinister hum and abrupt cries of Verdi’s beautiful, angry, and finally tragic score.
It also charges the atmosphere in a way that helps surmount a particular challenge of the opera: turning Shakespeare’s wordy study of a jealous, increasingly unhinged mind into something expressed far more through suggestion. As rich and compelling as the music is — and as tightly-crafted the libretto — there is a stretch in showing Otello’s progression to such a murderous frame of mind. Each moment and aria may allow its own expression but getting a sense of the unraveling is not easy. In using light to suggest emotion, be it anger, terror, or the dimensionless confines of a nightmare, it goes some way in describing more of the psychological territory.
That said, for any production to truly work, the deadly triangle of Otello, the scheming Iago, and the hapless Desdemona must convince on some visceral level, or all will fall flat. Here, though in some ways tempered, it does.
Playing it with satisfying menace and an interesting suggestion of the misogynistic bully, George Gagnidze is credible as the mean-spirited Iago, hellbent on driving Otello into a jealous rage over Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. Occasionally bolder than he is precise, Gagnidze nevertheless sings with a rich, driving baritone that delivers this ruthless man with a relentlessness that works well.
As Desdemona, Leah Crocetto sings with much fulsome sweetness and proves capable of reaching the rafters in some of her most plaintive moments of cri de coeur. But — and this is thanks to director David Alden — Crocetto offers this softly convincing woman with the submissive nature she needs. She may be keening with misery at her unjust lot, but in her gentle movements, her occasional turns of despair, she is true to character. Desdemona was a lover, not a fighter, and that perhaps is why (at least in the day in which this was written) she so beguiled the bellicose Otello.
At the center of the storm is Otello himself, and Russell Thomas arrives invested, expressive, and offering an exciting sound. If there is some unevenness at times, a few places where he is swallowed by the orchestra, it is balanced out by attractive, nuanced singing. Although he delivers it vocally, his handling of the challenge of showing Otello’s undoing over the course of the drama isn’t always as convincing. It can’t be easy to be a character who flies off the handle, when the “handle” has to wait for someone else to finish an aria or drawn-out phrase. Though deeply intense and brooding, Thomas doesn’t always bridge the gap to increasingly murderous, despite throwing some furniture.
Some of this restraint is in the nature of the production itself. In a noticeable choice, director Alden brings an interestingly chaste and gentle aspect to this Otello and Desdemona. In their moment together in the moonlight — our chance to see what all the passion is about — Crocetto and Thomas move almost in slow motion as they carefully embrace and caress one another. It’s lovely and affecting, but it doesn’t suggest the immensity — and, frankly, the indignity — of a passion that might become unbridled. Similarly, when they later tussle, some of the choreography is confusing — is she being strangled, hugged, or stabbed? Another misstep is the concept of Roderigo (handled ably by Alexander McKissick), who seems anachronistically over-costumed and inadequately choreographed.
But there is more here that works than not and there are other strengths such as the use of the chorus, often gathered in crowds, where hands emerge with intriguing timing and patterns. If the street-woman Solo Dancer (danced and mimed with power and fluidity by Claudia Aguero Marino) remains a mystery, she perhaps foreshadows the coming fever of madness. And her presence is thought-provoking in another way: as a wild, “fallen” woman, she is an outsider. As such she suggests all that Desdemona has to lose without her status as Otello’s bride and it casts another layer onto her emotional subservience. Her symbol as perpetual outsider also reflects the other theme here — seen in both play and opera — of the simmering prejudice against Otello, called so disparagingly The Moor. Either way, there is no way to watch a current production without contemplating not only what it might have meant to past audiences, but how it can be viewed now, given all that society struggles with.
In smaller roles, if Zach Borichevsky’s Cassio is not a particularly convincing drunk, he later rings true as Iago’s harmless dupe and is sung with appealing energy. As Desdemona’s handmaiden and wife to Iago, Deborah Nansteel’s Emilia relies on the vibrato, but brings some genuine fear and outrage. Finally, Wei Wu as Lodovico, the Doge’s emissary, brings much presence and sings with just the right touch of gravitas. Conductor Daniele Callegari draws the right energy from the orchestra yet keeps the magical nuance intact. There is something affecting in the way Thomas’ Otello tends to sit just feet from Callegari at times — as if communing with the unsettled music in his soul.
Otello may not be a bloodcurdling experience, but it is nevertheless a satisfyingly grim telling of a classic that continues to resonate. It’s also a reminder that, as lofty an art as opera may be, it thrives on home truths.
Otello runs through Nov. 16 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $45 to $299. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.