NEW YORK — There’s a certain timelessness to opera at the Metropolitan Opera. When you see a stage crowded with people in generic 19th-century costumes, with a dark, vaguely abstracted set and dramatic white lighting, the year could be 1985 or 2015, but you know you’re at the Met. On Monday, you were at opening night of the season: Verdi’s “Otello,” staged by Bartlett Sher. Dark images, rich music.
The Met has taken its knocks in recent years. Labor disputes and articles about the company’s financial struggles took the last of the bloom off the Peter Gelb rose; the executive director who promised big changes when he took over in 2006 is struggling as much as any of his predecessors. We know tickets aren’t selling; we sense a hint of desperation in the search for cutting-edge stagings, leading to the engagement and reengagement of the Tony-Award-winning Sher, even though none of his five previous productions for the Met has been all that great. To save money at this year’s opening, the Met even dispensed with what had become an annual tradition of live-broadcasting the performance onto Lincoln Center Plaza. It also dispensed with the time-honored tradition of hiring big stars for opening night; Aleksandrs Antonenko, Zeljko Lucic and the dazzling Sonya Yoncheva are familiar to some regular operagoers, but hardly household names.
Yet the Met still delivers big opera. The biggest star on Monday was Yannick Nezet-Seguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, leading the ever-fluid Met orchestra in a compelling and sensitive reading of Verdi’s score that never lost its focus on the narrative and emotional arc of the story while mining the depths of this beautiful, shifting, chiaroscuro music.
Sher, by contrast, seemed a bit at sea in the first two acts as to what the whole thing was supposed to be about. Catherine Zuber, the costume designer, outfitted the characters in 19th-century uniforms and gowns, and the set designer Es Devlin, for her Met debut, created a bunch of translucent boxy units, with drawn-on architectural details, that kept shifting restlessly across the stage against an abstracted video backdrop of roiling waves, emphasizing that we didn’t know quite when or where we were while giving the characters perpetually new geographies to navigate. The set-unit movement paid off in Act II, when a quick shift of scene in the middle of an exchange between Otello and Iago made it clear that Otello’s jealousy takes more than one conversation to build — redressing a problem that resulted when Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, combined two scenes from Shakespeare’s play into one for the sake of operatic brevity.
Countering the unrootedness were some old-school singers who basically planted themselves on stage and made big sounds. Antonenko and Lucic even have the square, beefy faces of 1960s head shots, evoking the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers — a formidable Otello — to whom the evening was dedicated.
Otello is one of the hardest roles in the tenor repertory. Antonenko can sing it, and therefore he does, all over the world. If he is missing some dramatic color and passion — and, certainly, tenderness in the love duet with Desdemona — it’s not for lack of trying, as he whomps out one big climax after another, giving burly physicality to the hammer blows of his character’s decline. Before the opening, the Met announced it was dispensing with the usual dark makeup, a wise decision because it didn’t affect the drama a bit and avoided the unfortunate connotations of blackface.
Lucic went through a reasonable pantomime of an unbearably villainous Iago; his voice is serviceable, without particular distinction or agility. Chad Shelton made his company debut in the brief role of Rodrigo; Jennifer Johnson Cano was a clarion Emilia; and Günther Groissböck growled bass-ily and a little foggily as Lodovico. Sher did help define individual characters: Dimitri Pittas’s Cassio was certainly more sharply delineated than some I’ve seen, not least because he sang it well.
But it was Yoncheva, in her first role as Desdemona, who gave the great performance of the night. Her Desdemona was a young girl full of love and passion and spirit — you could imagine her bucking convention in her choice of husband. And she had a voice to match, fresh and free and rich, dramatic in her increasingly hard-to-watch standoffs with Otello and achingly poignant in the long final bedroom scene, which can easily become static, but did not.
The second half of the evening was stronger than the first. In the final scene of Act III, Zuber finally cracked out some colors; the sets stood still and behaved; and everything became dramatically, almost cinematically clear. Perhaps the point was the timelessness of this work, a piece as much of our time and of Verdi’s as of Shakespeare’s, with its powerful music both heightening and mitigating the pain of watching it unfold. This may not be a production for the ages, but it was a reminder that “Otello” is an opera for them.