It is remarkable how many operas have been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. The tally even includes three each of Pericles and Timon of Athens and seven of Cymbeline, but for its operatic contribution in these past two weeks leading up to the Olympics, and as part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, the Royal Opera has turned to the greatest of them all, Verdi’s Otello.
It has proved a wise choice. Elijah Moshinsky’s production, dating back to 1987, still looks handsome, providing an atmospheric period background that allows the singers plenty of freedom, and the cast at this revival is a well-balanced one, fired up by an exciting performance coming out of the orchestra pit.
Aleksandrs Antonenko may not be the most powerful Otello there has been at Covent Garden, though he certainly has power enough, and the high-tension, steely timbre wired into the top of his voice carries exactly the intensity the role demands. There is less warmth (Plácido Domingo has spoilt us in that department) but he sings well and the rather generalised Otello he portrays in the early stages grows increasingly imposing in his wild-eyed intensity later.
His Desdemona is Anja Harteros, who sings gloriously and judges the metal in her character to a nicety – a reading of the role that is of the highest quality. The confrontation between her and Otello in front of the Venetian ambassador, when the doomed pair stood eye to eye, as though frozen in time, aspired to the heights of classical tragedy.
Lucio Gallo’s Iago is more problematic. He is pushed to sound a true Verdi baritone, a few passages (mainly in his solo recounting Cassio’s dream) betraying a serious unease, but every vocal colour he has is brought into play and he makes the words come alive. The smaller roles included fine contributions from Antonio Poli’s Cassio and Brindley Sherratt’s Lodovico.
Overall, though, the dominating personality was Antonio Pappano, who directed a Royal Opera orchestra on top form in a vividly detailed, thrillingly paced performance. The heat he always generates as a conductor brings warmth here to the opera’s emotions and a burning intensity to its drama – as fine a piece of conducting as anything Pappano has done in his time as music director.