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Met’s ‘Otello’ production had a shaky start

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NEW YORK — There were pleasures to be had at the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Verdi’s “Otello” on the evening of Oct. 16, even if casting problems left the performance with a hole at its center.

Dominating the stage whenever he appeared, baritone Falk Struckmann was a compelling figure of manipulative evil as Iago. His dark, powerful voice, though a touch on the dry side, filled out the lines of the drinking song with seductive charm, and he capped the chilling “Credo” by baring his teeth like fangs. Even a slight hoarseness that crept into his hushed delivery as he played on Otello’s jealousy seemed to suit the character.

Renee Fleming, the beloved soprano who has sung the role of Desdemona to acclaim throughout her career, was in fine form as well. Though her soft-grained voice has lost some of its creaminess and carrying power, she brought an aching lyricism and purity of tone to her “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria.”

In the crucial supporting role of Cassio, tenor Michael Fabiano impressed with ringing tone and vivid acting.

But there’s no escaping it: The title role is crucial to any performance of Verdi’s towering masterpiece. On opening night a week ago, tenor Johan Botha sang although indisposed, and uncharacteristically cracked on several high notes. He missed the second performance and was out again Oct. 17, replaced both times by Russian tenor Avgust Amonov, who was making his Met debut.

Given the difficulty of the part, it’s to Amonov’s credit that he got through it at all. But although there were flashes of lyrical eloquence in his portrayal, much of the time his voice sounded slightly pinched, and his tone tended to whiten on high notes. Most damagingly, he seemed dramatically disengaged and conveyed little sense of Otello’s descent from grand warrior to debased murderer.

The Elijah Moshinsky production begins effectively with the storm scene, but much of it is static, particularly the handling of the chorus. Michael Yeargan’s sets, with their massive pillars and Renaissance furnishings, are showing their age.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov led a vibrant reading of the score, building tension expertly in the third-act ensemble and creating a mood of tremendous pathos in the final scene. The orchestra sounded terrific.

There were two more performances scheduled this fall, including Saturday’s matinee that will be broadcast in HD to movie theaters worldwide. Then “Otello” will be back next March for six more performances with a different cast and conductor.

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