The Metropolitan Opera, mightily assisted by its music director, James Levine, offered Washington a tremendous and triumphant accounting of Verdi's "Otello" on Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Verdi brings out Levine's finest vein of eloquent musicianship and masterly control of the largest forces. The "Otello" was the Met's first fullscale testing of the Opera House's acoustics and the full potential of its staging resources. While two other companies have presented "Otello" in the house, it must be said that the Metropolitan, certain details of casting aside, surpassed both the Paris Opera under Solti and the Washington Opera in this work.
Along with the Requiem, "Otello" is Verdi's greatest choral masterpiece. On Tuesday night, in the two mighty choral episodes of the opera, the storm that opens the first act, and the gathering of the entire company in the second scene of the third act, the Met choristers were simply magnificent. tUnder Levine, there was a free, thrilling balanced sound and a tone quality that, even as the sopranos rose to the high C, remained glorious.
Needless to say, the orchestra played for Levine with equal splendor. Thanks to frequent performances in recent seasons, the entire ensemble is in utter unity with the conductor. The strings closing act one, as often during the evening, were pure silk, while the brass and woodwinds in the many grand moments, were impressive.
Franco Zeffirelli, a noted director of both Verdi and Shakespeare, designed the production which has some superb conceptions, chiefly in act one and the second scene of act three, and some of which disastrously contradict Verdi's specific directions and do so pointlessly. Both acts two and three are played in grim surroundings with no hint of Verdi's garden or terraces. (Verdi once wrote that people were always telling him of brilliant new ideas for his works that had probably not occurred to him. He commented that he had yet to see one.)
And where were the children and the mandolins to brighten the second act? The first half of act three is as badly set, with a menacing wall of armaments which by no means provides the right spaces for the brilliant trio by Otello, Iago, and Cassio.
But Verdi's music has triumphed over equally ill-conceived staging, and it does in the Met's hands. At the center of the music drama is the machinating Lago, the villain for whom Verdi almost changed the name of the opera. Sherrill Milnes has worked over the years to project the total menace of the role. He shades his voice to suit his schemes, now feeding Otello's jealousy, now feigning utter innocence, but constantly tightening his grip on the man he ruins. From the Drinking Song through the epic duet, and, with fine skill in the third act, Milnes sang and acted a great Iago.
Gilda Cruz-Romo's Desdemona shines at times in the lucent beauty of her high, soft notes. She has the feel of the role in its helpless, at times foolish, belief that pure love will be her salvation. But there are many times when whe loses the best quality of her voice and becomes an average singer, Her "ave Maria" would gain immensely by being sung in firmer rhythm and with little or no movement.
Richard Cassilly signs an Otello of some competence. There are welcome moments of quiet singing, but on the whole, there is little effective acting and many places where there is either a misplaced gesture or none at all. In numerous telling passages, the voice's characteristic reedy quality becomes unpleasant and the intonation suffers. The Met has three finer Otellos. It is regrettable that none of them is here this week.
Frank little has strengthened his portrayal of Cassio both in tone and action. He needs to guard against a tendency to sing through his nose. Paul Plishka was a resonant Lodovico, while Jean Kraft, John Darrenkamp, and Gene Boucher were strengths as Emilia, Montano, and the herald. Charles Anthony is a fine singer, but Roderigo needs a bit more sound. The opera, which is handsomely costumed and lighted, will be repeated Friday night with Atarah Hazzan as Desdemona.