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Productions at the Staatsoper are rapidly being converted to modern theatrical taste: less than half this season’s offerings belong to the stiff and faded grandeur of the Otto Schenk or Zeffirelli school. Christine Mielitz’s new Otello is a further attempt to reinforce this makeover.

It is an illustration of all that is good and bad in Regietheater, increasingly an institutionalised approach that too often degenerates into a stylistic straitjacket. Mielitz didactically presents a black-face Otello, failing because of the colour of his skin, while a very white-faced jury of Venetian nobles looks on from afar. This is the political touch that any right-on producer has to exhibit but the real strength of Mielitz’s craft is the intense acting she coaxes from her cast and a heightened sense of characterisation that goes so much further than Boito’s sometimes simplistic libretto: Desdemona (Krassimira Stoyanova in exceptional voice) is not a sweet sacrificial lamb but an unwilling victim railing against injustice and finishing her Ave Maria with quite unorthodox desperation. Iago, sung with chilling vehemence by Falk Struckmann, is a man with an almost justifiable grievance.

The bad news is that this thrilling theatre comes wrapped in Regietheater’s usual dreary aesthetic code. Christian Floeren’s single set is a bleak, black interior like a seedy nightclub for fetishists, with a central platform lit from above by a battery of spotlights. The only variety in this monotonous gloom comes from Desdemona’s white dress or Otello’s curious white bathrobe. The costumes, wet-look or leathery, are uniformly hideous.

That Mielitz thinks her take must be dressed down in this way says nothing about dramatic truth and everything about enslavement to hackneyed grunge fashion. But the musical standards are so high that we readily put up with it. Daniele Gatti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic with electrifying tension, while shaping Verdi’s romantic surges with exquisite restraint. Johan Botha’s Otello is simply stupendous: a powerful voice of rare tonal beauty, so technically assured that he can be quietly expressive in passages that floor even the best. This is a triumph of stylish singing.

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