Otello the Outsider

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Downstairs in Grieghallen, we have just started rehearsing Verdi´s Otello for later this month. We´ve celebrated with cake and coffee, sympathised with singers who have just stepped off red-eye ‘planes. Now director Peter Mumford is delicately picking at Shakespeare´s characters: the tortured Moor general, the growling, prowling adjutant passed over for promotion, the newly elevated Cassio.

If Otello´s agonies begin some pages into the opera, Iago is wracked with fury from the very opening chords. Iago, the soldier, the opportunist, the man with the bleak heart, has emerged from the ultimate world of trust: man together with man in the face of the enemy. He and Otello have soldiered together, faced death together, trusted their being to each other. Together, they have killed, smashed cities and broken lives. Now Otello has betrayed him. Iago is stuck in the hot-house of barracks with no plan other than revenge. And into this turmoil, Shakespeare introduces sex: the fragrant Desdemona, the Moor and mighty general´s young wife. It´s a terrible, provocative story. Nicholas Hytner, chief at the UK´s National Theatre, about to direct Shakespeare´s play and feeling alien to the world of the military, consulted a senior figure recently returned from Basra. Sex and the violence of war do not march well together, he learned. The hot-house will boil.

Centuries of performance have insisted that the play, and consequently the opera, are about race – that Otello is defined by his African roots, that the fact of his black skin makes inevitable his actions. As late as the 1960s, productions aligned his native ‘barbarism’ with his raging, uncontrollable jealousy. In the noughties, white actors still strutted obscenely with painted brown faces. And forget not that in recent memory, a good deal of pretentious babble preceded Jonas Kaufman´s Otello at the Royal Opera – would he be black, white, or merely tanned?

In Bergen, we´ve taken a fierce and deliberate line with a tacit agreement that we will concentrate fully on exploring identity and character – and of course, on presenting sounds which seize the heart. We have a white Australian Otello, and African-American singers as Desdemona and Iago.

Why, we´ve asked, presume that Shakespeare is writing about race? Far more, he is writing about the other, the outsider, the man alone in a writhing web of strangers. Otello is given his lofty position by the Venetian Court, who routinely appointed foreigners to command so as to avoid vicious muttering within their own elite. And in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, defined as mean and an abuser, is referred to simply as ‘the Jew’. We call Otello ‘the Moor’ in much the same careless way as Hamlet is deemed ‘the Dane’ – it is a means of definition. Otello, paranoia apart, is aware that he is different – but his colour is only a part of his head-banging insecurity. He worries about not having ‘those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have’; about being a generation older than his wife; about being a military man amongst ordinary people. He´s not a murderer because of colour, but because he is a complex, frail human taunted by the perfection of his highly-born child-wife, driven to utter despair by his conniving peers, and given to feeling before he thinks.

The rehearsal begins. Poison is lapping round the rim of Iago´s being. Desdemona, a trembling teenager with a violent, volatile husband, is bewildered. Cassio is drinking heavily. Verdi is knitting stupendous swerving lines into a furor of dissonance. The drama is social realism at its most acute and distasteful, set to music which inflames the soul.

This is Verdi from two centuries past, but opera at its most raw and modern. Past, present future. Emotions never change.

Mary Miller

1st December 2017  /  Otello at Bergen National Opera

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Photos from rehearsals in Grieghallen: 1) Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Lester Lynch (Iago)  2) Lester Lynch vents fury in the role of Iago

Fabulous Fabio

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In the thick of rehearsals for Bellini´s I Capuleti e i Montecchi – a notoriously difficult opera to stage – with complex chorus choreography, exhausted soloists and the alarming possibility of Tebaldo accidently stabbing a stagehand (yes, we have real swords) – a small figure remains serene. Fabio Biondi, conductor, Bellini specialist, baroque and classical violinist supremo is smiling calmly and discussing rubato with his Spanish assistant, José Ramón Martín Díaz. José is fiddling with the piano and playing snatches of The Way you look Tonight. Fabio is singing quietly ’…. La tremenda ultrice spada…’

Talking to him is like experiencing a gentle blood transfusion – inspiration flows from him in an extraordinary way, as though he himself is discovering new wonders as he speaks. He´s telling me about how bel canto, in present times, should really be described as bella musica – ’bel canto was really about writing music for the stars, about celebrating the spectacular voices. Now we try to show how deep this music is, how interesting, how much detail is in the chorus, the orchestra, the dramaturgy. So maybe we take a little focus away from the singers’. Hence bella musica for the 21st century.

He talks about ’the smell’ of Shakespeare´s tragedy and looking at Nicola Raab´s production here for us in Bergen, I know exactly what he means. As the curtain opens onto pale gloom, prone figures and a set where white walls drip with ink-black paint there is the sense that, inevitably, no good will come of this story. Biondi calls the opera ’a celebration, but in a terrible way’. The stars, for sure, are not aligned.

’So we hear at once’ he says ’that the music is not superficial. We have the first very important cabaletto from Tebaldo and Romeo; fabulous melody – Bellini, for me is the prince of that – and all the fantastically different elements in this intense and strong story’.

For Biondi, Capuleti is Bellini´s greatest opera. ’No, not Norma; yes, but it has a kind of monumental quality. But it´s much less human. Capuleti is like, well, it´s a multi-media opera!’ Many of course, will disagree. Capuleti, again and again, is dismissed with a shrug. ’Not my favourite’ said one critic (he´s coming to our premiere – I am trusting Biondi and Raab to change his mind….) The demands on the singers are frightening – Giulietta and Romeo both sing across a vast range – and the long, eloquent arias which cannot realistically be interrupted by any stage action must generate their own drama and hold their audience in emotional thrall. So the actual theatre of the piece is entirely in the music – a fact which thrills Biondi: ’You know, this is so good – it’s such a strong argument for showing the audience that this music is not in any way a simple accompagnata for the voice.’

’Bellini believed so much in the relationship between the sound and the dramaturgy. Romeo´s instrument is the clarinet, Guiletta´s, the horn. It runs so deep – right at the end of the opera, when Romeo is alone and distraught at Guiletta´s death – when he´s singing ’Come, come, I cannot live without you’, there in the orchestra her ’horn’ voice is calling.’

Listening to the first orchestral rehearsals, it´s clear that Fabio also loves the ’human’ sound of the middle stings. As the wind and violins strut rhythms which will support the chorus, he is leaning, gesturing and beaming at the violas, drawing rich, warm lines. (’No wonder we love him… how many conductors actually encourage us to play more’ says one happy violist at the interval). ’These long lines are so beautiful’ says equally happy Biondi; ’we must use all these elements to show the emotion in the music’.

The ’trouser’ role for Romeo is one of the last in 19th century musical development, something which bemused if not irritated his contemporaries who by then were busy glorifying the new hero tenors. ’Berlioz’ mused Biondi ’was actually a very nice man’ but he really hated this score because of the two women. But I think Bellini really understood the story´s trauma. These lovers have only just passed childhood – Romeo must have a sweet, fierce boyish voice. He is not an adult romantic hero.

’Actually, I once attended auditions in Dubai – they wanted a tenor for Romeo because of course to have two women there was out of the question. And it sounded horrible. No slight on the poor singers, but the poetry is lost.’

So, to Bergen, where Kristina Mkhitaryan and Nino Surguladze are our star-struck lovers, their voices blending in heavenly union.  Biondi is excited – the opera is a Norwegian premiere. ’Wonderful! We know that Capuleti e Montechi was a fantastic success at its debut performances in 1830. Now we have the chance to show Norway why!’

Mary Miller

1st November 2016

How Flying Beds changed the world of opera

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When Robert Carsen first devised his production of Benjamin Britten´s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1991 – Bergen National Opera´s recreation opens on Saturday 7th – the opera world reeled with shock. The curtain opened onto a giant bed occupying the whole stage, with pillows the size of an average truck, and a bedspread in brilliant green unrolling like a football pitch.

Characters bounced across the bedclothes, tumbled and twirled, the twenty small boys playing pompous, grumpy fairies marched across the set like badly-behaved toy soldiers, and just as those surprises settled, the third act opened onto a skyscape with three huge flying double beds. Opera, in the early 90’s, simply wasn´t like this. Furniture onstage was roughly the size you would expect it to be, and it stayed on the ground. Choruses were adult and unlikely to have blue hair. And outside Baroque music, no-one expected the hero to be a spectacular counter-tenor with a deeply cynical grin.

This was not Shakespeare – or an opera – as anyone knew it. Plenty of opera directors had produced the work beautifully since its first showing in 1960: Britten had written it for the celebrations surrounding the new town hall in his English seaside home, Aldeburgh. The premiere there had caused enough surprise – this was not the sombre-minded composer who had riveted the UK with disturbing operas about misfits in the community, dark goings on at sea and more than a hint of obsession with beautiful youth. Taking Shakespeare’s text much as in the original, Dream burst into life as a great riot of human feelings – passionate love, cruel mirth – jostling with the glittering dark mischief of the fairy kingdom.

The opera has never had a professional performance in Norway, and BNO and partners BFO felt strongly that to perform the opera, chosen by both as part of Bergen Philharmonic´s Jubileum Season would be a fine thing. It seemed to be the moment for Carsen´s startling, iconic setting to be seen in Norway. The music is magical, shimmering, melodic and enticing, and the assembled cast is stupendous. There’s the sense that the humans are reckless intruders into dangerous fairyland where romps a whole realm of naughtness.

Right now in rehearsal, behind real-life scenes, all kinds of dramas are unfolding. How does a 2metre high bass-baritone sing with a massive hairy donkey-head obscuring his skull? How do twenty small boys with bright blue violins and scarlet gloves all pluck the strings in time? And what about the soprano who isn´t too keen on heights lying on that flying bed?

Meanwhile BNO´s Puck, the super-bouncy fencing master from Game of Thrones, Miltos Yerolemou (look out for him too in a small part in the new Star Wars) is enchanting everyone as he sprints from disaster to joy.

So the production may startle you, excite you have you shout with laughter just as Britten, reinvented by Carsen intended. Midsummer Night´s Dream does just what opera can do like nothing else – it tells you an unforgettable story.