Ensnaring the Soul: Thoughts on ROH’s “Otello,” and its Demi-devil

I will start by saying that I adore Shakespeare’s Othello, and I’m far more familiar with the play than with Verdi and Boito’s opera. (So, you’ll see various “Othello” versus “Otello” spellings depending on which I’m referring to.) But knowing just enough of this opera to feel both its intensity and its difficulty, I was in as much anticipation as any to hear and see the interpretation of Jonas Kaufmann in what has been referred to as “the Mt. Everest of tenor roles.” Combined with this, the ROH’s current Otello is a new production by Keith Warner, and conducted by Antonio Pappano. It live-streamed to many cinemas on June 28th, and will be shown at various dates in the months following, depending on one’s location.

Well, I did have an opportunity to see it…and adored it.

In my usual fashion, however—more art with less matter?–I won’t even try to be overly succinct.

Brief background: Verdi, Boito, and Shakespeare

In many ways, it sounds as though Verdi’s Otello—considered one of his great works along with Don Carlo and Falstaff—is the result of a strained bromance. I read a fascinating article (linked here) about the extremely fruitful and long collaboration between Verdi and the librettist Arrigo Boito, who apparently even brought Verdi out of retirement. Boito wrote up his Otello libretto without any hope of its being used nor paid for, but solely as a passion project, “to give V[erdi] proof that I am truly far more devoted to him than he believes.” It premiered at La Scala in 1887.

His source, Shakespeare’s Othello, was first performed in 1604, and his own source was one tale from among a collection of Italian tales in the Hecatommithi which were popularized in 1565—and we all know the story, more or less: the noble “Moor of Venice,” married to a Venetian woman, is targeted for destruction by the devilish Iago.

“That demi-devil…”

Marco Vratonga, Iago, ROH “Otello” 2017

Iago is one of the great villains, in part because he seems to delight in evil for its own sake. Not just pot-stirring, mischief-making like a type of Loki figure, but truly delighting in other people’s suffering and his own power to make them suffer. Some of his injunctions to Roderigo even about minor characters—i.e., “poison his delight,” “plague him with flies”–are as seemingly purposeless as they are cruel. And scarily enough, particularly in Shakespeare’s play, Iago, oozing charisma, draws the audience right along in his machinations. We almost become guilty co-conspirators.

Bringing it back to Verdi, it is no wonder that he initially intended to call the opera Iago.

The eternal question as to Iago’s motive is: Why? “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil/Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” (Othello, V.ii.).

Why? To quote the wrong play, “that is the question.” The ten-million-dollar question. Is it simply jealousy of Othello, or racial prejudice? Is it a kind of love-lust of Othello, and jealousy of Desdemona? Jealous of Cassio for usurping his place? Jealous of both of them, for being ranked above him? Or simply jealous of anyone who has any measure of success, enjoyment, or contentment with their own life? We know what Richard III wants. What Claudius wants. What Lady Macbeth wants. But what the hell (yes, definitely hell) does Iago really want? His motive is the consummate puzzle. Coleridge’s note on Iago in his own copy of Shakespeare has become famous: “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” Not that he is without motive, but his motive is something utterly mysterious and cruel: it is “for my peculiar end” (Othello, I.i).

Iago’s answer to Othello’s question, and his last line in the play, is equally enigmatic: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./From this time forth I never will speak word” (Othello, V.ii.).

Side note: My mom, Debra, and I–well, our entire family of Shakespeare nuts, in fact–have had many discussions on this subject over the years, and she has written about this subject–Iago’s “motive”–in fiction and nonfiction/reviews, one of which can be found at this link. She also references a favorite production of Othello, the play, which I highly recommend, with Willard White, Imogen Stubbs, and Sir Ian McKellen, though it seems to be more difficult to find now. (And if you want to really fall down the rabbit hole here, there is an excellent article about the experience of Sir Willard White–an opera singer–playing the role of Othello in the play.)

Whatever the motive, what is clear is that Iago is the consummate manipulator, and an actor through and through. (Some reviewers of the ROH Otello have referred to Vratonga’s Iago as “puppet-master,” which is excellent.) “For when my outward action doth demonstrate/The native act and figure of my heart/In compliment extern, ‘tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at. I am not what I am” (Othello, I.i). He knows how to play on the perceived “weakness” or characteristic tendency of each person, and use it—less to his own advantage, than to the other’s disadvantage. Desdemona’s extreme trust and innocence is used against her; as is Cassio’s tendency to lose his head in anger when drunk; Roderigo’s lust and gullibility; Othello’s paranoid anger—or, more in the traditional context than in this particular production, his own insecurity about his status as “outsider.”

For the noble “Moor of Venice” is, in some way, an outsider, who has gained great popularity and status through his heroism. Whoever plays Othello/Otello has to make this nobility, the bravery, utterly convincing, for a crucial element of the tragedy to be felt.

ROH’s “Otello”

Thankfully, for Otello the opera, now that we are beyond the embarrassing “blackface” interpretations of yesteryear, we can really explore infinite varieties (thanks again, Will, for your amazing coinages) of motive—either related to Iago’s villainy, or to Othello’s tendency to both suspect and react in the extreme. Motives, perhaps, related to the “green-eyed monster” in both.

If there is one potential “problem” in the pacing of the opera, it is perhaps that there is less setup, and hence, less potential payoff. After all, in the play, Iago is planting seeds of doubt, courting the audience and everyone else, and planning his knavery for a full two acts before he plants the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity into Othello’s mind. And yet, in spite of such setup, there is nothing at all extraneous in the Shakespeare play—no digressions nor subplots that don’t relate directly to the main thrust of the action. It’s tight as a drum. In the play, Othello doesn’t dismiss Cassio until the end of Act II, and Iago doesn’t first suggest (to Othello) the idea of Cassio’s interest in Desdemona until Act III, Scene 3—quite literally right smack in the middle of the play! In the opera, both events happen at the beginning, with very little prologue. This was brought up wonderfully by my friend Viv in her review, linked here.

So, the music must make us familiar with the characters. And the performers must convey the poignancy of their relationships, and Iago his villainy, with little time to spare. In other words, the music and performance must make up for the lack in length and setup. This is yet another challenge—especially for the Otello—to any who would tackle such demanding roles.

Jonas, who has always had an unusually strong acting ability, and who comes across as

Jonas Kaufmann as Otello and Maria Agresta as Desdemona, ROH “Otello” 2017

truly interiorizing his every performance and thinking through it rather than bluffing it, emanates a natural leadership and inherent goodness. Yet, it is an essential goodness which has a component of deep emotional and psychological instability. The same capacity for swift judgment, which must have made him a ruthless general, has also made him rash. His dark sound is uncannily suited to this role, and he had me in tears from his “già della notte densa.” His first stirrings of paranoia—and even madness—were utterly convincing. His intensity, his capacity for subtlety and intelligence verging on hypersensitive madness was beautifully done, winding up so tightly until his final unhinging is dramatic and frightening. (And I confess, his dark voice has had me on a “Jonas high” ever since…) He is revelatory. Here is a clip from an earlier recording of “Niun mi tema.”

What can I say of Antonio Pappano? His lush, dramatic score was yet another character altogether…the opening storm scene utterly thrilling, and everything throughout the opera so fulfilling in this regard as to make one forget what an art it takes to forget the artists who helps make it possible: the conductor and orchestra.

Maria Agresta is a very winning Desdemona, who captures well the innocent guilelessness of the character, although I have little to compare her with, as relates to other opera performances.

Marco Vratonga is a juicy Iago. He doesn’t have the most beautiful baritone sound, but his gruff energy and sheer delight in malice goes a long way, and personally, I thoroughly loved his performance. In the play, one has more time to take delight in Iago’s extreme two-facedness—the false brotherly love for Othello, and what appears to be genuine concern for Desdemona, Cassio, and Roderigo. Then, he turns on a dime to face the audience and say, “How am I then a villain?”–and did I just see a wink?—and we are, guiltily, captivated. Or, perhaps…ensnared. In the opera, and in Vratonga’s interpretation, it is hard to see the “honest Iago,” as the villain face is so apparent…but it is delightfully devilish notwithstanding.

A chiaroscuro production: turning “virtue into pitch”

Speaking of the “villain face,” this brings me to the element that I wanted to give a little more focus to, and one which has gotten mixed reactions: the new set design and production by Keith Warner. Personally, I loved both, and found the use of light and dark extremely powerful and effective. The costumes had a certain magical realism; they whispered of the time in which the play was written, and yet belonged to no particular time nor place.

Perhaps a number of opera-goers have become a bit tired of the minimalist set design. I will admit to my bias, as I’ve always loved it—but only if well utilized, and if it serves what should be an obvious purpose: to draw attention to the music, the words, the characters. I will never forget a certain live theatre production I saw as a teenager, of Richard III, with all the actors dressed in the same black outfit—often, because the company was small, with one person playing multiple roles—and they utilized just one distinctive piece of clothing (a hat, scarf, etc) to distinguish each character. They would take up or doff each clothing item as needed. But the sheer energy and acting talent brought our imaginations to life, and compelled the listener to hear Shakespeare’s words like the music that they are.

Now, I too have become a little tired of “drab” productions, which sometimes overlap with “minimalist.” The recent Vienna Don Carlo was, I thought, somewhat of this variety. (Except for Philip II’s, ahem, gorgeous costume… 😉 ) It had all the rather spartan, blue-grey dullness that is a bit lacking in ingenuity. Okay, frankly, I think it’s a bit lazy.

This production, however, utilized a stark black/white/red design to perfect effect: it was the chiaroscuro of the soul.

It begins in utter blackness. Iago then appears in spotlight, holding a comedy and tragedy mask: the comedy (a white mask) in his left hand—and for the audience, it is the one on the right—and a black tragedy mask in his right hand, and our left. After looking at them, he tosses the comedy mask to the ground with a devilish laugh, looking at the audience.

This immediately connects to what I discussed above: the possibility of so many other themes and motives than solely race, or rank-jealousy; all are intertwined with one another, with the over-arching tendency to destroy and bring the “other” down. To destroy happiness in the “other.” To destroy. Period. It brings up a possible further motive for our ever-elusive Iago: he is out for the soul. As in the play, he is out to “turn [Desdemona’s] virtue into pitch,/And out of her own goodness make the net/That shall enmesh them all” (Othello, II.iii). In this production, one has the feeling that Iago wants not only to turn the appearance of virtue into pitch (again, the light/dark theme), but to turn their own souls against themselves and their better nature. Perhaps, to damn themselves, using their own weakness to their disadvantage.

In this way, we might connect it to Iago’s chilling “Credo” aria: what he’s actually battling is a “cruel God,” rather than Otello, Cassio, or Desdemona. An effective way to, essentially, give the finger. It is odd, how in Verdi’s and Boito’s interpretation, Iago seems to buy into an odd sort of predestination: we are all “slime”; “I believe the just man to be a mocking actor in face and heart” (“Credo che il giusto e un istrion beffardo e nel viso e nel cuor”); that he himself does what he does by “destiny’s decree.” (Here, I would advise the opera-Iago to listen to another epic villain, Edmund in King Lear, I.ii: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,/When we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit/Of our own behaviour,–we make guilty of our/Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as/If we were villains by necessity; fools by/Heavenly compulsion…”) Or, perhaps, Iago sees himself as destined to be the shadow that opposes the light. Hell’s compulsion, if you will. Or, “divinity of hell” (Othello, II.iii).

The production brings out this soul-battle with haunting power. From the general “darkness” of the set, to Otello seeing himself in Act II, masked, in a mirror, right after he is nearly ready to kill Iago for planting this seed of doubt in his mind. Later, before the final scene, as Otello descends into madness, Iago proclaims “victory” and the joy of being able to crush this “lion of Venice” under his feet…then proceeding to cover Otello’s mad-vacant face with the black mask of tragedy. Overall, I doubt that it is only victory over Otello he wants. After all…why? I think Iago has bigger fish to fry.

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