MUNICH — The Bavarian State Opera is one of the world’s leading companies these days, with a thrilling music director, Kirill Petrenko, and a reputation for challenging and intriguing productions. It tried to showcase both with the first new production of the season, Verdi’s “Otello,” which was broadcast live around the world last Sunday night. “Otello” is a fiery Italian opera about a passionate man; Amelie Niermeyer, the director, tried to make it a nuanced opera about the decay of a marriage. It sort of worked.
It is popular, in many opera circles, to demonize interpretive stage direction — the dreaded “Regietheater,” a.k.a. “Eurotrash” — and try to overlook it to focus altogether on the music. Certainly the music was the main draw of this “Otello,” on paper. Jonas Kaufmann, the heartthrob German tenor, was returning for a second try at one of the toughest parts in the tenor repertory, and Petrenko, who is taking over the Berlin Philharmonic in August, was in the pit. Add the soprano Anja Harteros, known for her vocal beauty, and the marvelous Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, and the result was something that’s becoming ever rarer in U.S. opera: a sold-out house. Yet it was Niermeyer’s staging, though extremely problematic at times, that turned out to play the largest role in making the evening so thought-provoking.
This “Otello” certainly wasn’t for everybody. If you were looking for an old-school Italianate “Otello,” you would have been disappointed; this was one of the least Italianate readings of the work possible. Kaufmann is a cerebral though honey-toned tenor who has been going through some rough vocal patches lately, and who certainly doesn’t have the huge passionate voice associated with this part. Harteros has a clarion, trumpet-like voice that made individual sounds of great beauty but offered little limpidity or softness. Even Finley, who stole the show as a fawning, slimy and startlingly credible Iago, brought his own contemporary touch rather than traditional Italian fireworks. Petrenko’s ardent conducting also had a coolness to it, like one of those bright-daylight lightbulbs illuminating every explosion and tender whisper in the score.
The point, though, was that the production wasn’t even trying to be an Italianate “Otello,” working, rather, with what it had to create a new perspective on the familiar drama. Niermeyer shifted the focus onto Desdemona, using Harteros’s vocal strength into a depiction of a stronger, older, more independent figure than the norm for this character — with a couple of children, even, if I correctly read the brief moment in the Act II chorus when they appeared — and inserting her into nearly every scene.
There were a couple of problems with this. First, Niermeyer almost sabotaged her own concept in the opening scene by reducing the storm and Otello’s heroic entrance to the realm of the domestic, with Desdemona pacing her room while the chorus and soloists (including Galeano Salas as Rodrigo, the very tall Evan LeRoy Johnson as a Cassio with integrity, and Milan Siljanov as a warm Montano) sang lined up below her in near-darkness. Another problem was that Harteros’s performance, and the beautiful sounds she sometimes made, were undermined by her wanderings from both the tempo and the correct pitch. Petrenko, in the pit, had to do a lot of heavy lifting to bring drama and fire to the opening scene, and to help keep Desdemona’s scenes flowing.
Yet Niedermeyer’s essential vision of Otello and Desdemona as a long-married couple trying to break through their increasing isolation and find each other again was often telling. The sets offered pairs of twinned spaces, one behind the other, in stark bleak grays and whites; at some point in every scene, a wall came down between the two of them, blocking Desdemona from view. The payoff came in the final scene when Otello entered Desdemona’s bedroom to kill her and found her standing by the fire. In the course of the scene, they embraced with all the longing and love and hope and mistrust of long familiarity, a reminder that it could have gone another way, if only it hadn’t.
To some, this kind of shift of perspective represents a distraction; the director’s job, they say, is to elucidate the composer’s meaning. But while I didn’t like everything about Niermeyer’s staging — the first scene! the flower-bedecked cross-dressing kitsch of the chorus celebrating Desdemona! — I came away thinking a lot about the characters and their relationships. Reengaging with a great work and trusting it to be able to show different sides of itself is, after all, the point of the exercise — the line between creativity and mere regurgitation.
Niermeyer’s concept also helped unlock a couple of the better performances. I am not sure how Kaufmann would do in a more traditional “Otello,” but I found him quite credible in this one, which presented him as a less heroic and declamatory figure than the norm, and therefore helped cover for the fact that his voice is not the ideal weight or type for this role. His performance on Sunday, if it was calculated, was calculated along some good lines, clearly informed by some of his great predecessors in the role. And although it wasn’t an Otello I’d listen to on record, what he offered was more simpatico, to my ear, than some of the louder, more bellow-y recent proponents of the role.
I’d also submit that Finley’s brilliance was showcased precisely by Niermeyer’s conception of Iago as a slightly dissolute Mediterranean rogue, jet-set style, in a fitted T-shirt and loose summer pants, smarmily physical and sycophantic — someone you might have met, in fact, in the opera audience going in. Finley went to town with the role: Proclaiming that he believed in nothing and it didn’t matter what he did, he broke down the fourth wall and the people around him with equal bitter, fawning glee and such deceptive offhandedness that his powerful singing seemed easy. He might do just as well in a traditional production. But given a choice between this production and, say, Bartlett Sher’s at the Met, I would, with some reservations, take this one.