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"Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!
Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw.
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.
I am your own for ever.
Iago " Act III, scene iii

Written: 1604

Metropolitan Opera ; February 22, 2008 New York, New York
Director : Semyon Bychkov (conductor) ; Starring :
Reviewed on : 2008-02-25 09:11:51 ; Reviewed by : Antonia Mandry

To approach opera with a theatrical eye is imperfect, but to approach it only with a musical ear is also incomplete. The criticisms of Friday's performance of Verdi's opera Otello are all of a theatrical bent; there are no criticisms as to the musical skill of the opera.

One must wonder at the choice of putting a white man in blackface in the modern United States.The tradition of blackface stretches back more than 100 years, but fell out of favor with the awakening of a national consciousness against racism. Blackface predominantly drew on, played on and perpetuated racist stereotypes and fell out of favour only within the last 20 years. When Othello the play is being performed today, it is understood that the actor should be black, not a white man in black facepaint. Who were these latter actors? The history of white actors playing Othello stretches back to its first performance, and thereafter includes notable actors such as Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Actors such as Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson (acting almost a century apart) were notable, apart from their talent, precisely because they were black. Today, actors such as Avery Brooks, Eamonn Walker and Derrick Lee Weeden play the role without comment on their race. But when tenor Johan Botha, a white South African, stepped on stage in blackface, it was impossible not to be shocked. There is such a legacy in both the United States and South Africa of discrimination and hate based on images and stereotypes of "the Other" that it is difficult for the modern sensibility to get past this theatrical choice. But this is opera, and opera has always been a little ... creaky. Behind the times or not, I wondered, if they chose a white singer, why put him in blackface? I doubt that there would have been a single audience member who does not know the story of Othello and would have been confused by a white Othello.

In fact, traditional approaches marred most of the production: the use of blackface aside, the set was opulent in its Venetian tone with columns and towering setpieces. Opulence without significance, however, is little more than sound without fury. The sumptuous garments in rich colors and fabrics were gorgeous, but brought little new to the story.

Verdi, himself, was anything but traditional when he approached the task of putting Shakespeare's play to music. Despite being his penultimate opera, Otello is full of atraditional elements: Verdi, with his librettist Arrigo Boito, cut certain scenes, increased the pace of the play dramatically, and re-invented his own musical style. In this sense, the vocal skills of the singers were more than up to the task. Botha's voice is pleasant and accomplished, but lacks the real passion and emotion that is reflected in Fleming's performance. Quite frankly, there is no one like her. Carlo Guelfi has a lovely voice as Iago, and occasionally acts as well! However, it is again Fleming that reminds in the mind and in the soul when the audience leaves the opera.

Sir John Gilbert, R.A.,
Othello and Iago

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