“Otello” at Mariinsky Theatre II in St. Petersburgh

Mariinsky II:
34 Dekabristov Street

7 January
2014 | Tuesday


opera in four acts
(new stage version of the 2007 production)
performed in Italian


Valery Gergiev


Otello: Kristian Benedikt
Iago: Alexander Krasnov
Cassio: Oleg Balashov
Lodovico: Yuri Vorobiev
Desdemona: Yekaterina Goncharova

Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito, after William Shakespeare´s tragedy Othello, or The Moor of Venice




Musical Director and Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Stage Director: Vasily Barkhatov
Set Designer: Zinovy Margolin
Costume Designer: Maria Danilova
Lighting Designer: Gleb Filshtinsky
Principal Chorus Master: Andrei Petrenko
Musical Preparation: Alla Brosterman



Act I
A harbour. Evening.
The triumphant arrival of Otello, the new governor, is interrupted by a sudden storm. The tempest has already taken the lives of dozens of sailors and townspeople while the sea continues to throw corpses and wrecked ships onto the shore. The lighthouse ceases to function. The townspeople look for Otello among the bodies – few believe it possible to survive such stormy seas…
Suddenly Otello’s voice can be heard above the panicked crowd. The people greet him, delighted that he has survived. The storm abates and the lighthouse is lit anew. The first attempts are made to clear away the debris of the disaster. Those who have been drenched and shaken are given warm clothing, food and drink.
Iago, Otello’s comrade-in-arms and retainer, is among those overseeing the clearing-up process, though he is deeply envious of his patron. Iago cannot forgive Otello for appointing the young Cassio and not him to a high rank. In revenge, Iago plots to incite the Venetian Roderigo against Cassio, Roderigo being in love with Otello’s wife Desdemona. Iago convinces Roderigo that the handsome young Cassio is his rival.
Provoked by Iago, Roderigo quarrels with Cassio. In vain Montano, the island’s former governor, tries to pacify them – beside himself, Cassio beats him mercilessly.
Hearing raised voices, Otello comes from his residence, followed by Desdemona. Otello punishes Cassio for his crime, stripping him of his military rank, and tells Iago to restore order.
Night. The deserted coastline.
Alone at last, Otello and Desdemona tenderly recall the past, caught up in the delight of being together. Affairs of State, disasters and bloodshed all cease to exist when they are alone together.Act II
Morning. Otello’s new study, as yet unusable following his arrival.
Iago and Cassio bring in their superior’s belongings. Widows of sailors lost in the storm are waiting in the antechamber.
Obsessed with his cunning plot, Iago assures Cassio that with Desdemona’s protection he can retrieve his lost honour and title: everyone knows that the new governor is hopelessly in love with his wife and will grant her every wish.
Desdemona herself appears: she is amused with Iago and his wife Emilia’s sons who are playing. As yet, her own marriage to Otello has not produced any children… Cassio approaches Desdemona and begins to speak. As if by chance, Iago draws Otello’s attention to them. Shamming anxiety he confidentially advises: “Temete, signor, la gelosia!”
Otello, though angry and disturbed, remains unshakable: Desdemona, whose beauty, grace and gentle nature are praised by the entire island, is incapable of adultery.
Desdemona turns to her husband, asking compassion for Cassio. Without realising it she thus aids Iago, fuelling Otello’s jealousy further. Not knowing the cause of his wrath, Desdemona wishes to cool her husband’s forehead with her handkerchief. Otello wrenches the cloth from his wife’s hands in fury and throws it on the floor. Emilia picks it up to give to her mistress but Iago seizes the handkerchief from his wife. It will be of use to him later…
Desdemona and Emilia leave. Otello alone is anxious – he both believes and disbelieves the tortuous suspicions that are tearing at his soul. Farewell to everything – love and happiness, glory and life! In anger Otello throws himself on Iago and swears to destroy him if he has defamed Desdemona. In a pretence of despair, Iago is ready to present proof – if he is forced to do so: once at night he heard Cassio say Desdemona’s name in his sleep and he has seen him with her handkerchief, a wedding present from Otello. Taking control of himself, Otello goes to the townspeople and relatives of those who died and makes an official speech to mark the day of mourning.Act III
The hall in the governor’s residence has been prepared to bid farewell to the sailors lost in the storm, and the event is to be attended by the various ambassadors in Venice. Otello is obsessed with the thought of his wife’s infidelity. Seeing Desdemona in the hall, Otello asks her to tie the handkerchief he gave her on their wedding day on his head. Unable to find the handkerchief and paying little attention to her husband’s request, Desdemona again begins to speak of Cassio. Otello is furious: he demands the handkerchief he gave her on their wedding day! In vain Desdemona assures him of her fidelity. Mad with jealousy, Otello drives her out. Alone, he cannot reconcile himself with the idea that he could lose his love: everything he has done and believed in will collapse.
Iago continues to weave his web of deceit: now he intends to convince Otello of his complete devotion, advising him to hide and carefully observe all that happens. Then, having summoned Cassio, Iago enters into an ambiguous conversation, subtly juggling the names of two women – Desdemona and Bianca, Cassio’s beloved. Iago asks Cassio to show him the handkerchief that he himself has placed in his room. The serene Cassio admires the beautiful handkerchief… Convinced of his wife’s disloyalty, Otello decides that he will kill her himself. He orders Iago to obtain poison, but the latter advises him to strangle Desdemona in bed. Iago himself undertakes to deal with Cassio.
The ambassadors arrive at the grand funeral ceremony for the sailors. Lodovico, one of the ambassadors, informs Otello that he has a new position and Cassio will be his successor. On hearing this Otello is enraged: a man he hates appointed to such an exalted position! The presence of Desdemona and her kind words about Cassio intensify the blow. Rudely insulting Desdemona, Otello demands that the guests leave the hall and falls senseless.
The people on the square praise Otello, chanting “Behold the Lion of Venice!”

Act IV
Night. Otello and Desdemona’s bedchamber.
In the morning man and wife are to leave the island. Desdemona is seized with dire premonitions. She sings an old, melancholy song about a poor girl who is abandoned by her lover and is transformed into a willow tree. In vain Emilia tries to comfort her mistress – despondent with gloomy thoughts, Desdemona bids her farewell and prays.
Otello appears. Unable to find the strength to carry out his plan, he attempts to make her admit to her sins – in vain Desdemona swears her innocence, in vain she begs for mercy. For the last time Otello takes his wife in his strong arms… Emilia runs in: Cassio has just killed Roderigo who attacked him, provoked by Iago. Otello admits murdering his wife. Hearing Emilia’s screams, people run in. Before all that have assembled she exposes Iago – it was he who took the handkerchief from her in order to defame Desdemona. Otello kills himself so he can share his wife’s fate…


Russian premiere: 26 November 1887, Mariinsky Theatre
Premiere of the new stage version of the 2007 production: 22 December 2013 <!–Running time 3 hours 40 minutes
The performance has two intervals

Василий Бархатов

Vasily Barkhatov on his production of the opera Otello

What do you consider to be most important in this story? What accents are you focusing on?
– The most important thing is the human stories – about normal people. Naturally, Otello won’t be “blacked up”. A white Otello has not been an unusual idea for a long time. Between him and Desdemona what is important is not the difference in skin colour, and neither is it the difference in age – it is the difference in culture that matters. What did Verdi actually have in mind? Otello is a man with his own background – Arabic, Ethiopian, whatever you like – but what is important is that he has unbending and incredibly harsh principles. And Desdemona is a true European who has been raised liberally. Not impertinent, but much more free. She has no such great number of vetoes and limitations in her head.
Their love affair is just like the love between a Soviet diplomat and a French actress. Or between a soldier and a poetess – the nationality here is not at all important. And everyone says, looking at them, “Well, they won’t be together for long. They’re totally different. In a month at the outside they won’t have anything more to say to each other.”
He is, basically, not a bad man. But he has some kind of complex because for six hours she could chatter about the systems of Stanislavsky or Schopenhauer and he wouldn’t understand a single word. And he gets bored in the opera. She notices this. And then he might be told “You know, Desdemona and Cassio went to see Wagner last night, they sat there for five hours and left looking happy.” And he’d think “Damn! I’m an ignorant oaf!”
It is common to interpret Desdemona as a woman apologetic to Otello in all four acts. That always disturbed me because the role involves these Venetian passions! There are times when Desdemona understands that she is also an independent person in her own right. She is a woman who can easily say some sharp words or slap someone, and not just act slavishly towards Otello. It’s very important that she intercedes on Cassio’s behalf with absolute confidence.

– How important is Iago for you as a typical image of an operatic villain?
– You mustn’t confuse him with Gounod’s Méphistophélès who always underlines his wicked attractiveness. Iago is not working for the audience. His aria Credo is, outwardly, filled with pathos, albeit pathos within inverted commas. When a man is unable to speak seriously about certain things he will overact somewhat. Iago knows that there is no Satan, while there is data from the stock exchange that alters every day, there are currency rates, social welfare and other tangible, material things. He is not at all grasping. He knows neither devotion nor hatred. He’s just a systematic man. A faceless man. He has a specific business plan for the near future. As the saying goes, “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” It’s not that he deliberately wants to harm Otello, it’s not that he finds his position as Otello’s conspirator particularly demanding. This doesn’t really worry him – it’s just a certain stage of his business plan. He doesn’t torture people deliberately. He walks over anyone in his way, yet doesn’t reflect on this. He has no streak of narcissism. He does nothing superfluous to what is required. It’s simply that his system of actions has to lead to a specific result.
There is such a moment in the opera: Otello and Desdemona remain overnight in an abandoned boat on a beach. The head of the government, influenced by his young and freer wife, allows himself this. To Hell with protocol. They have sat down on the beach and they begin to recall the past. All lovers, even if they are together for no more than a week, have a favourite pastime – remembering how they met: “And do you remember telling me about the war?” and “Yes, yes, I remember!”
So Iago understands that, however strange it might seem, it is easier for a man who has just woken up happy with his wife to be convinced of her infidelity than it is for a man away on business who doesn’t see his wife for six months at a time. Such lunacy could only occur after a night of blissful love! People can be highly strung as it is, excited and somewhat disorientated. Another day he would have slept in and not killed his wife, while Desdemona herself would have packed up her belongings and gone home to her mother instead of putting her own neck in a noose. If you tell such a tale to a man who is in a state of euphoria, whose marriage still resembles a holiday romance, if you say that everything is exactly the opposite way around then he will take all the energy he has invested in his love and divert it in some other direction. And the very next night Otello murders his wife.
It is not at all diffi cult to understand Otello. In my production there is nothing that makes him any more prone to explode than other people. I believe that in similar circumstances anyone could act that way. Iago lays out the intrigue brilliantly. He needs only cruel and irreversible consequences, he doesn’t need for Otello and Desdemona to argue and then not speak for two weeks. Iago has no need to do anything nasty; he merely needs specific results.

– What other performing traditions with respect to this opera do you disagree with?
– In this opera there is a story of a huge number of people who drown during a storm. I’ve always thought it strange that the storm is generally interpreted as some kind of “attraction” in this opera. It is generally depicted vividly and so it does not appear again. Yet if those caught in the eye of the storm are so weather-beaten then probably not all have survived. Correspondingly, there are victims, and these victims naturally leave widows and Otello somehow has to answer for this. And beginning from Act II the widows and orphans are constantly fi lling Otello’s reception room – this is a global problem that has to be dealt with and which he cannot deal with at all because of his own personal circumstances.

Speaking with Yekaterina Biryukova

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