Friday, 15 December 2017

Verdi Otello Bergen Philharmonic - Gardner Skelton Moore Lynch

Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch (full list here) and four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Children’s Choruses) with  chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede.   The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still.   Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may be a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it's world class.

Otello is one of Stuart Skelton's signature roles.  He's matured into the part, singing with even morer depth and richness than before, negotiating the range fearlessly, for Otello is a hero who has  achieved great deeds.  Significantly though, a storm is brewing in the orchestra as he arrives in Cyprus in triumph.  Skelton sang that "Esulate" like a roar, like a lion pre-emting danger.  But what was most striking about Skelton's portrayal was its subtlety.  His Otello is a man who has confronted overwhelming obstacles all his life and has no delusions about apparent success.   When he does find the love he needed so much, his inner insecurities prove his undoing.  His tragedy is that he's a good man, destroyed by those more venal than himself.  "Fuggirmi io sol non so!"  After Otello has killed Desdemona, Skelton's singing is coloured by such sincerity that, despite the crime, Otello is, for his last moments alive, revealed in his true nobility.

Skelton's Otello proves that make-up has nothing to do with artistry.  We see the "real" face of Otello and feel his emotions direct.  Blacking-up has been anathema in Britain and most of Europe for decades, and it should be.  Blackface reinforces the idea that people are defined by outward    appearance  It may not have been racist in Shakepeare's time, but it is now. .Otello is an outsider, as is clear in the plot and in the music. No-one should need a caricature Darkie to understand the opera.  So Bergen deserves absolute respect for giving us a white Otello and a black Desdemona - people are people, and equal, whatever the colour of their skin.

Latonia Moore is beautiful, in every sense. Her voice is lustrously pure.  She creates Desdemona as a  halo that glows with spiritual light, which is much more to the point of the opera.  Desdemona  is an almost visionary personality who sees the innate goodness in Otello and who is prepared to sacrifice herself for love. A soul sister of Gilda and Violetta Valéry.  Moore is also sexy, suggesting Desdemona's love of life. The natural sensuality in her voice intensifies characterization, for Desdemona, like other Verdi heroines, isn't virginal though her moral strength elevates her saint-like self-denial.  In the first Act, Moore was surrounded by the children's choruses,  all of them looking, and sounding, angelic.  One young girl looked like she had stars in her eyes - no wonder she was looking at Moore with genuine fondness.  Though the staging was minimal, it serves to enhance Moore's artistry, Her dialogue with Hanna Hipp's Emilia was lucidly intimate. Curtains and bed linen don't create personality : good singing does. Incidentally Hanna Hipp sang Emilia at the Royal Opera House. I first heard her in student productions at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She's good.

I was looking forward to Lester Lynch's Iago, too, after his Lescaut in Baden-Baden, where he achieved a hugely impressive dynamic with Eva-Maria Westbroek. The pair interacted so well that  they really felt like brother and sister, sparring and flirting.  Manon wasn't the only rebel in that family.  As  Iago, Lynch generated similar energy, his voice curling with menace, key words darting forth with venom.  Yet again, there's no reason why Iago "has" to be any particular race. Scumballs lurk anywhere.

This Bergen Otello is hard-hitting and emotionally secure,the orchestra playing with vigorous élan. A clean "northern" Otello (staging by Peter Mumford) and no worse for that. Otello is universal. It's not Mediterranean, nor Italian, nor Shakespearean but human drama, for all times and places.

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