The disadvantage of seeing an opera for the first time became apparent to the Dresser after she left the December 9, 2007, performance of the Kirov Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. While the concert of Verdi’s complexly dark music was richly played by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under the baton of Valery Gergiev, other elements of the production—set, costumes, and direction—pulled this opera, first performed in 1887, into a more contemporary timeframe and mindset that the Dresser suspects did not add value.
Arrigo Boito’s libretto written in Italian, based on English playwright William Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece Othello, progressively shows in four acts (the Kirov production runs three hours and twenty minutes with two intermissions) the psychological unraveling of the powerful general Otello (played by Vladimir Galouzine) who, as the opera opens, has returned triumphant to Cypress from a battle but was nearly killed by a raging storm at sea. His priority upon making it safely to shore is to see his beloved, new wife Desdemona (played in this performance unexpectedly by the young soprano Irina Mataeva). However, his ensign Iago (played by Sergey Murzaev), who Otello passed over for promotion in favor of the much younger Cassio (Sergy Semishkur), is bent on revenge. Using the unrequited affections for Desdemona of Rodrigo (Sergey Shkorokhodov), another naval officer in Otello’s company, Iago devises a strategy for convincing Otello that Desdemona has been unfaithful and bringing down Cassio.
Boito’s libretto sets the action of Otello at the end of the Fifteenth century. Gergiev, who is not only the conductor for but also the general director of the Kirov Opera, has moved his production forward in time to possibly the 1950s. The Dresser makes this guess based on the furniture used for Otello’s office in Act II. The centerpiece of Zinovy Margolin’s set design is a massive lighthouse with a revolving searchlight that one presumes to be automatic.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky
While the costumes do not belong to the Fifteenth century and have lines more in keeping with contemporary styles, it is hard to identify their placement in time. The main male characters are mostly dressed in business suits that have overly long jackets. Desdemona and Iago’s wife Emilia (Lyubov Sokolova) wear long dresses and coats. Chorus members are dressed in long and mostly drab peasant attire with some men wearing suggestive naval uniforms that mix double-breasted dark coats with light colored, blousy pants.
WHO IS THAT PETTY BUREAUCRAT?
The Dresser wonders what the costume designer Maria Danilova was thinking when she chose a grey-blue suit for Iago who, by the way, wears eyeglasses. In the Kirov production, Iago looks like a benign petty bureaucrat. Equally disconcerting was that Vladimir Galouzine as Otello had his face darkened with a brownish makeup application that made his lips and eyes pop out from his face and made the Dresser think of blackface makeup used in an American minstrel show. So while Iago tended to blend visually into the background, Otello, the Moor with a freakishly bad makeup application, stood out unintentionally.
Since the Dresser had just seen Galouzine as the gambling obsessed Herman in the Kirov Opera’s production of The Queen of Spades, she anticipated that Galouzine would deliver a credible Otello falling apart as Iago planted insidious seeds of slander against the innocent Desdemona.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky
For the most part, the Dresser enjoyed Galouzine’s performance except for the end of Act III where he, believing the worst of Desdemona, writhes on the floor in such exaggerated agony that the Dresser found this segment of his performance melodramatic. Despite Galouzine's performance seeming a little more ragged than his performance in The Queen of Spades, he still stands out out as the most memorable singer in the cast.
LIGHTS ON, NO ONE HOME
What was most troubling about the Kirov production was Gergiev’s re-interpretation of where Desdemona meets her end. Most people familiar with Shakespeare’s five-act play know Othello smothers Desdemona in bed and so it is with Boito’s written libretto. In the Kirov production, although Act IV begins in Desdemona’s bedroom, the action moves to a catwalk near the top of the lighthouse. There Desdemona in her night gown—or is this her slip since she was wearing this garment under her dress in her bedroom—takes a late night walk to quell the foreboding she feels about her next encounter with her husband. Visually the set is eye-catchingly dramatic, but the Dresser continues to wonder what convoluted message the director was attempting to impart by placing the jealously deranged Otello and his genteel wife on the lighthouse for the murder scene. Normally one thinks of a lighthouse as a symbol of salvation. Counter intuitively the Dresser hoped that Desdemona’s plea for mercy or delay until the morning would sway Otello. Didn’t the lighthouse provide a certain element of hope? But of course, Otello strangles her and all the Dresser could think was lights are on but no one is home.
The title poem Kurt S. Olsson’s prize-winning book What Kills What Kills Us offers interesting counterpoint to the Kirov interpretation of Verdi’s Opera Otello.
WHAT KILLS WHAT KILLS US
They carry pain like a bent nail
under their tongues. They aren’t thinking of
recycling or raking leaves or Salman Rushdie
as they park their cars before this house bright
with wind chimes and sunlight. They come
for a story, for a different reading
of whole seasons in constant need of repair.
They want to return to dreaming of fish
and Turkish coffee and the bric-a-brac
of simply making do. They come for a story,
not theirs, but hers, the woman
who answers the door and brings them
to a room ionizing with what she promises
will kill what kills them. They come
for a story of the bee woman’s
bees and how once in her garden a swarm
of angry sky descended
pierced her. How later, she rose
from her metal chair, walked.
On lace doilies, their salvation, prisoned
in the cool pinch of tweezers,
sizzles like a drowned tree in a hurricane.
Afterwards, a sensation, like being
the last one in a subway station.
Their cars steaming in the winter sun.
The story, which is theirs to keep.
by Kurt S. Olsson
from What Kills What Kills Us
Copyright © 2007 Kurt S. Olsson