Kirov's 'Otello,' In One Fell Swoop

Vladimir Galouzine as Otello and Sergey Murzaev as Iago in
Vladimir Galouzine as Otello and Sergey Murzaev as Iago in "Otello." By the time Act 2 came to a close, they were reduced to shouting at each other. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Kirov Opera's traveling production of Verdi's "Otello," which opened Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, is another in the succession of wildly uneven shows that this troupe brings to Washington every year, and may be likened to the legendary little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it was good, it was very, very good and -- well, you know the rest.

Conductor Valery Gergiev has many faults (has there ever been another opera director who so regularly allows his orchestra to drown out the singers?), but they pale in the face of his overwhelming virtue -- namely, the sheer sweep, energy, slashing vector and irresistible vitality of his musicmaking. In an era of uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting performances, Gergiev, for all of his in-your-face sloppiness and seeming allergy to parenthetical thinking, is always exhilaratingly alive.

He built "Otello" as one long, urgent impulse, from the volcanic reiterations of the opening chord through the radiant chamber music that accompanies Desdemona's prayer. By this stage in his career, Verdi had mostly moved away from formal arias and ensembles in favor of unbroken music drama, and Gergiev's frenetic tempos tended to efface such boundaries completely. I've known this score for 40 years but found myself listening with renewed excitement, as though I were revisiting a favorite thriller, eager once more to find out what happened next.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Irina Mataeva's sweetly lyrical and excruciatingly vulnerable Desdemona and several of the smaller roles (notably Lyubov Sokolova's Emilia and Sergey Skorokhodov's Roderigo), this "Otello" simply wasn't very well sung. By all accounts, tenor Vladimir Galouzine was enormously effective in the Kirov's "Queen of Spades" last week, but he sounded strained and sore as he uttered Otello's first great cry of "Esultate!"

By the time Act 2 came to a close, Galouzine and the production's solid but second-class Iago, Sergey Murzaev, were reduced to shouting at each other, painfully and mostly inaudibly, in a corner of the stage. Galouzine recovered somewhat for the death scene, but this was accomplished with skillful acting and a careful shepherding of what was by then an overworked and pretty much depleted voice.

The production, directed by Vasily Barkhatov, is dark, drab, budget-conscious and altogether weird. Three of the acts seemed to take place in the prow of the Battleship Potemkin, on which somebody had helpfully planted a Cape Cod-style lighthouse and some Ethan Allen furniture. The luscious Act 2 chorus was sung entirely offstage, somewhere in the pitch black of outer space, handily negating the wave of gentle relief this interlude usually provides.

And the finale was staged in a manner that can perhaps most charitably be described as insane. Desdemona, having just tucked herself into an adjacent bed, suddenly decided to wander out daftly onto a narrow balcony while Otello stalked her on yet another, making for a sense of emotional and physical constriction. After the murder-suicide was consummated, at the moment when feeling spectators were shaken and spent by the depths of the horror, the lighthouse inexplicably blasted out a blinding and invasive strobe light into our eyes. It was startling, to be sure, but contributed no more to a meaningful catharsis than a sudden shock from an electric generator under our seats might have done.

"Otello," with some variation in the casting, will be repeated tomorrow night at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon at 3.

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