Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona
Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona © Ken Howard

The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of Otello opened the season in September 2015 with the same Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva) and same Iago (Zeljko Lucic) as in the current revival. It is produced by Bartlett Sher, a Met favourite but not a critics’ favourite.

I find his staging pleasing enough, although hardly a conceptual challenge. There are rich costumes (Catherine Zuber), updated to the mid-19th century (no great harm), but the principal impact is made by Es Devlin’s sliding panels bearing “rooms” of what looks like translucent glass. They are handsome, although the multiple sliding in and out can get a little manic. The direction of the characters is adequate, though conventional.

The novelties of this revival are, first, Gustavo Dudamel’s Met debut as a conductor, and, supposedly, Stuart Skelton’s first Met Otello. At the season premiere we got one out of two.

Dudamel was wildly cheered, but I had my reservations. The music sounds either loud, even raucous, or soft to the point of inertia. There is some lovely playing, especially from the strings, as in the “Ave Maria”. But the through-line lacks (or lacked, in case he perks up later in the run) tensile strength, forward momentum. The music sounds un-Verdian, overbearing or slack. Maybe Dudamel is trying to subvert his hot-blooded Latin image.

Skelton fell ill and turned over the dress rehearsal and first night to Carl Tanner, his cover. Tanner has a colourful background (long-distance big-rig truck driver and bounty hunter before he got serious about his singing), carefully laundered out of his Met bio. By now (he’s 56), he has evolved into a singer with a worldwide career. He’s good: a solidly produced heroic tenor, a little less imposing than some but effective in the trumpeting parts and pleasing in the love music. What he lacks is a sense of animal ferocity, but that could be attributed to a lack of extensive rehearsal time.

The Met eschews blackface for the Moor. In Shakespeare and Boito’s libretto, much is made of Otello’s blackness, and of his presumed lack of self-control. It’s a sensitive issue, but a white-faced Moor seems to subvert the drama.

Otherwise, Yoncheva is on good form, maybe a little too assertive for this frail flower but lovely in the last act. Lucic, the Met’s current go-to baritone villain, does a fine job with this one-dimensional character. But the evening never catches fire.

★★★☆☆

To January 10, metopera.org

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