Up until the curtain rose, there were naysayers who doubted whether this beloved but elusive and cancellation-prone artist would actually go through with it. In March, he dropped out of a highly anticipated new “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera next season, because of the time it would require him to be away from his young family, calling into question the future of his career in the United States. ( He is scheduled to sing an act of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at Carnegie Hall in April, but he has not appeared at the Met since 2014.)
Well, if Mr. Kaufmann will not come to the United States, then the United States — or at least its most devoted opera fans — must go to Mr. Kaufmann: He’s worth it. If there were any questions about his voice’s power and flexibility at age 47, they were resoundingly answered on Wednesday as he delivered Otello’s opening victory cry, the ringing “Esultate,” with both grandeur and haunted smokiness. His tone remained smooth, his high notes steady, even at the end of the second act, an exhausting, long confrontation as Otello is persuaded of his wife Desdemona’s infidelity — imaginary, of course — by his malignant ensign, Iago.
He made the start of the great monologue “Dio mi potevi” so soft and vaporous that it gave the uncanny effect of listening to the inner workings of Otello’s mind. And after smothering Desdemona and realizing, too late, her innocence, Mr. Kaufmann’s final outpouring of remorse, “Niun mi tema,” took on grim, ashen gravity.
But more impressive than any single passage was his uniform security in a role that strains even top tenors. Mr. Kaufmann is simply right for the role (he was, we might say, born to sing it): His voice’s gloomy melancholy, the naturalness with which it portrays wounded outsiders, made it perfect for this wary general.
While his singing was nearly flawless, he didn’t convey — not on the first night, at least — the part’s sheer intensity. When Mr. Kaufmann strode onstage to stop a drunken riot in the first act, he seemed almost bored. “My blood begins to boil,” Otello claims — but you wouldn’t know it from the perfectly poised yet emotionally chilled singing. In the agonized second act, as Otello comes to believe the accusations against Desdemona and flails at controlling his growing rage, Mr. Kaufmann made beautiful sounds but gave no palpable sense of inner struggle.
It may be possible to organize an “Otello” production around a dazed, detached protagonist — and Keith Warner’s staging emphasizes the character’s isolation, giving him a few lonely seconds onstage, watching the crowd, after his blazing “Esultate.” But there were too many moments on Wednesday that seemed to be grasping for old-fashioned passion to convince me that Mr. Kaufmann’s tendency toward coolness was entirely intentional.
And that edge of chill kept being shown up by Antonio Pappano’s vivid, ardent conducting. During Desdemona and Otello’s love duet at the end of Act 1, for example, Mr. Pappano sent off spikes of extreme feeling that Mr. Kaufmann, for all his vocal finesse, didn’t quite match.
In the delicate final bars of that duet, Mr. Pappano conjured a landscape simultaneously intimate and cosmic; later, he accompanied a young officer’s confession of an infatuation with a rush of rustic, hormonal energy. I’d never heard the orchestra’s growling postlude to Iago’s “Credo” so vibrant — as if that character were spitting angrily on the ground after his sneering speech. And Mr. Pappano led a chorus capable of both luminous prayer at the end of the storm in the opening scene, and tipsy agility in the drinking song that follows.
Her Desdemona simple and good-hearted, Maria Agresta sang with a tone that was sometimes full and womanly, sometimes cloudlike; Marco Vratogna was a blunt, somber Iago.
Large swaths of Mr. Warner’s production — with period costumes (Kaspar Glarner) paired with blank, vaguely contemporary sets (Boris Kudlicka) and stark lighting (Bruno Poet) — are shadowy, plain and straightforward. But the staging is pockmarked, particularly toward the end, with tacky touches, clichés of contemporary opera direction: lines from the libretto written as graffiti; broken statuary; a splatter of blood on an otherwise pristine white wall; a final, pointless neon halo around Desdemona’s bedroom.
But none of those irritating interventions detracted much from the news of the night: Mr. Kaufmann’s superbly assured singing of one of the most daunting roles in the repertory. His Otello is clearly still in formation dramatically, but vocally it is already a part of the great tradition.
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