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Robert Baxter
Opera, June 2007

Willy Decker’s Otello erupts furiously. From the opening measures, Decker distills Verdi’s music unto a relentlessly paced, tautly focused staging. Stripping away all scenic distraction, he exposes naked emotion in his 2006 production for Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceau.

The cross and the crescent clash in this Otello. In the stormy opening scene, Iago desecrates the white cross dominating the bare set. Desdemona – yes, Decker introduces her as the storm rages – reverently prays before the symbol Then Otello appears, clutching a broken standard topped with a gold crescent, a symbol of his victory and a reminder of his Muslim heritage. After Iago rends the hero’s heart with jealousy, Otello slams the cross against his knee and breaks it, a descent into savagery. The broken cross lies on the stage until Desdemona, at the end of the Ave Maria, tries to fit together the pieces that now represent her shattered love.

This Otello plays out in two parts on a tilted, sloping floor hemmed in by oppressive walls. The cramped space, smeared with bloody stains, magnifies the tortured emotions that suffuse the characters. John Macfarlane’s claustrophobic set places the focus on the singers, and Liceau’s cast passes scrutiny.

Josè Cura turns Otello into a raging animal. Stalking the stage like a wounded lion, he turns from conquering hero into a haunted figure tortured with jealousy. When Otello savagely cries for vengeance, Cura dominates the stage. When he collapses to the floor at the end of Act III, spasmodic sobs rack his body. His cries pierce the plaintive English born solo that opens the final act.

This towering Otello – boldly if imperfectly sung in a baritenor of tremendous impact – finds a gentle foil in Krasimira Stoyanova’s radiant Desdemona. Voicing the music with instrumental purity, Stoyanova gives a piercing performance of the willow song and Ave Maria. Lado Ataneli proves the perfect Iago for Cur’s demonic Otello, suggesting the banality of evil through his understated acting and compact singing. Vittorio Grigolo’s buff Cassio and Ketevan Kemoklidze’s keen Emilia add to the impact.

Decker turns the Liceau’s fearless choral ensemble into a dominant character/ Garbed in radiant white, the chorus delivers eager singing and committed acting. Antoni Ros-Marbà paces the music as dramatically as Decker charges the action. Like the director, he impetuously bares the dark passions raging through Verdi’s music. This intense Otello stuns both the ear and the eye.

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