Otello, Grange Park Opera: Simon Keenlyside’s sullen, sardonic Iago steals the show

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Simon Keenlyside in Grange Park Opera's Otello
Simon Keenlyside in Grange Park Opera's Otello

When Giuseppe Verdi was persuaded out of retirement in 1879 to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello, eventually premiered in 1887, there was some doubt as to whether it should be called Otello or Iago (to avoid confusion with Rossini’s Otello of 1816, still famous at the time). A century and more later, David Alden’s new production for Grange Park Opera should undoubtedly be called Iago: that character dominates throughout, as the master manipulator and plotter of Otello’s downfall.

At the beginning of each of the four acts, Iago stands outside the frame of action as the curtain parts, drawing us in to observe the latest stage in his machinations. When delivered with the sullen, sardonic pleasure that Simon Keenlyside brings to the part, it is easy to forget that his scheme is based on something as flimsy as a handkerchief – the sign by which he convinces Otello that his wife Desdemona is unfaithful with the captain Cassio. With such meagre means, Iago incites Otello to fierce jealousy and eventually to murderous loathing for his innocent wife.

Notionally set in Cyprus (which features here in a wall-map that Otello destroys in one of his bursts of fury) the unchanging Thirties quasi-fascist set by Charlie Edwards and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes create a dreary context for the drama: a bar, a curtain, a bare room with (at the end) a tiny bed for Desdemona. Alden’s trademark technique of giant shadows from his cast are reflected on the wall, and the slanting lighting by Tim Mitchell creates a couple of powerful moments, notably at the close as Otello opens the door of Desdemona’s room.

The whole effect, however, is rather dismal: whether or not the setting is updated, contrast is needed between the imposing grandeur that we hear in the music and the intimacy of the relationships that unfold. And while there are some strong individual performances here, there is not yet a sense that these cohere into a convincing whole.

Beside Keenlyside’s Iago, Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Otello struggles to make himself the dominant character in the drama: we get strongly projected words, powerful singing in the middle range, but in the upper register, which should ring out with unforced passion and conviction, there is unyielding tone and a sense of strain.

Gwyn Hughes Jones and Simon Keenlyside in Grange Park Opera's Otello
Gwyn Hughes Jones and Simon Keenlyside in Grange Park Opera's Otello

By contrast, Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Desdemona has superb top notes of unearthly directness and purity, but tends to spread the tone less evenly lower down the range, and is encouraged to wildness rather than restraint: she is at her most concentrated in her Willow Song and final evocation of the Ave Maria. The two connect best in the Act III duet “Dio ti giocondi, a sposo”, where the writing is simple and eloquent.

A solidly supportive cast includes Olivia Ray’s tense, anxious Emilia, who comes into her own in the final desperate scene, where Otello has murdered his wife (here by shooting her, rather than smothering her), alongside Elgar Llyr Thomas’s straightforward Cassio, Anthony Flaum’s foppish Roderigo, and Matthew Brook’s impassive Ambassador Lodovico. Lynne Hockney’s dancers add an otherwise missing touch of sensuality.

Elizabeth Llewellyn in Grange Park Opera's Otello
Elizabeth Llewellyn in Grange Park Opera's Otello

A small chorus does its energetic best to make a big effect in Verdi’s magnificent crowd scenes, and it is a startling moment when all the men, but not the women, rush to Desdemona’s defence when Otello publicly throws her down and curses her. But there is just not enough strong character in Gianluca Marciano’s conducting, and as a result the Gascoigne Orchestra has trouble creating the inner tension and precisely calculated sonorities of Verdi’s inexhaustible score, one of the greatest late works by any composer.

In rep until July 9, festival runs until July 17; grangeparkopera.co.uk

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