When the world’s most famous tenor takes on for the first time the mighty challenge of the title role of Verdi’s Otello, it’s an important step for his innumerable fans. Though he’s perhaps not an ideal exponent of the part, Jonas Kaufmann is an imaginative singer and a highly capable actor. Thought-through and sung with skill, his first Otello is a more than respectable achievement, and one that will surely develop further.
Some will be disappointed that the Royal Opera has not yet felt able to cast a black singer in the role – though it’s fair to point out that even singers who specialise in the bigger Verdi repertoire often turn Otello down as unmanageable. There are very few tenors who will attempt it, and vocally Kaufmann is entirely credible in the part.
His colleagues are worthwhile, too, with Maria Agresta’s intensely lyrical Desdemona something more: this is quite simply a performance of outstanding vocal beauty and dramatic poise.
Marco Vratogna’s Iago is more roughly handled, his interpretation solid though scarcely subtle. Frederic Antoun’s Cassio is delivered with elegance and Thomas Atkins brings Roderigo’s foolishness into sharp focus.
Boris Kudlicka’s dark sets are a blend of realism and abstraction, while Keith Warner’s broadly traditional new staging is clear-sighted if not notable for intensity.
Where the evening scores most highly is on the musical side, with Antonio Pappano once again showing his impeccable command of Verdian style in a reading with real dramatic sweep. Orchestral playing is strong on detail and flawless in ensemble, while the choral attack under the company’s new chorus director William Spaulding is regularly thrilling.