REVIEW: Yannick Nézet-Séguin Soars in Met Opera’s New Otello
Philadelphia sent a little touch of star quality to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to lead the large-scale musical forces in a new production of Verdi’s Otello, which opened the company’s season last evening. Philadelphia Orchestra’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has been widely regarded as one of the Met’s greatest conductors, brought an immense amount of control throughout Verdi’s challenging score in Bartlett Sher‘s dark production. In that sense, our Philly hometown hero was one of the stars of the night.
Sure, it is a little strange to start off a review of an opera by talking about the conductor, but Nezet-Seguin’s ability to lead a tight interpretation of Verdi’s work is extraordinary. But, then again, he had the remarkable talents of the Met’s orchestra and the amazing Met chorus, who both provided an inspired performance.
This Otello did not rely as heavily on racial contexts as it did the physiological torment of the title character: It made news that Aleksandrs Antonenko, the tenor who studied extensively with Verdi expert Riccardo Muti, would not don blackface to perform Otello, a notable change compared to many tenors who take on the role. Mr. Antonenko gave an impassioned performance, and his vocal intensity grew as the evening progressed. Come the end of the tragedy, Antonenko reached his best as the vulnerable ruler who has been consumed by his own doubt, orchestrated by Iago, played here by the excellent Zeljko Lucic. Lucic, a regular interpreter of Verdi, was delightfully wicked as Iago, and his vocal power is unmatched in this repertoire.
However, the evening seemed to belong to Sonya Yoncheva, who played the doomed Desdemona with such fervor that she earned her mark as one of the finest Met opening-night ladies in recent history. Ms. Yoncheva’s renditions of Desdemona’s signature arias “The Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” were as emotionally complex as they were vocally, and she brought a clear and moving sense of character to her interpretation.
There were, however, audible boos during the curtain call for director Bartlett Sher, who is best known for his Broadway revivals of South Pacific and last season’s The King and I at Lincoln Center. Sher said he was inspired to view Otello through a physiological lens, referencing Ibsen as an influence. One can see this through the design of large opaque set pieces that shifted shape into different rooms as the opera progressed. It’s an interesting concept, but it didn’t fully work. If anything, his staging of Verdi’s work seemed, at times, a bit heavy handed and two-dimensional.
Staging aside, the musical fireworks on the stage and from the pit were an exhilarating example of how Verdi, when left in the hands of masterful musical interpreters, can reach powerful heights.
‘Otello’ runs at the Metropolitan Opera through October 17th, and returns later in the spring. For tickets and more information, click here.