Desdemona: Renée Fleming
Otello: Johan Botha
Cassio: Michael Fabiano
Iago: Falk Struckmann
Roderigo: Eduardo Valdes
Emilia: Renée Tatum
Ludovico: James Morris
For me, Otello is one of those operas that's easy to admire but not so easy to love. Musically I think it's one of Verdi's most thrilling achievements with full bodied orchestration, great psychological depth, and some very memorable arias. But the malicious plot is such a downer, and the characters - what can I say - if they're not completely odious they're downright exasperating, except perhaps for Desdemona's maid, Emilia.
That said, I looked forward to last night's premiere of Otello at the Metropolitan Opera. I've been neglecting Verdi over the past several years (in favor of Wagner, mostly), though I did see La Traviata and Macbeth last season. I've also been avoiding Renée Fleming lately - her recent recordings and videos have begun to seem so mannered and artificial that sometimes I can barely recognize what she's singing.
Well, Fleming proved me wrong last night. Her voice may no longer seem as lush as it did ten years ago but her account of Desdemona was a model of integrity. She sang the part without any embellishments and undue emphasis. Her vocal line was pure and her emotional expression was honest and deeply felt. Her fourth act Willow Song and Ave Maria were completely unnerving in their simplicity. No histrionics, just a stoic resignation and acceptance of her fate that pretty much broke my heart.
Botha didn't fare was well in the title role. His voice sounded thin (because of allergies, as a spokesperson explained during the intermission) and his characterization was cartoonish.
Struckmann, on the other hand, was fantastic as Iago. Like Fleming, there was no overacting, he just sung his part with such tremendous authority that his every inflection sent chills through the audience. Fabiano likewise made a fine impression as Cassio, and so did Tatum as Emilia and Valdes as Roderigo.
Morris proved that he can still command the stage even with bit parts. It was a nice surprise to hear him as Ludovice. The chorus sounded a bit out of synch in the beginning but improved in the later acts.
Bychkov conducted with passion and conjured many wonderful effects in both the public and intimate scenes. The orchestra served Verdi well last night. I just might see the rest of the composer's offerings at the Met this season.