Renée Fleming as Desdemona and Johan Botha in the title role of Verdi's "Otello." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


DIRECTOR: David Kneuss

CONDUCTOR: Semyon Bychkov

CAST: Johan Botha, Renée Fleming, Falk Struckmann, Michael Fabiano

RUNNING TIME: 208 minutes

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

Paul Boekkooi

Verdi wrote Otello at the age of 73, 16 years after Aïda. In this period he only published his Requiem Mass, and it’s been described as the “perfect” opera. Based on the Bard’s play, it is Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, who must receive the credit for compressing the 3 500 lines of Shakespeare’s play to under 800.

The opera bears the stamp of genius at its pinnacle. Its score is one throbbing story of the catastrophe of a great love. Drama is a mystic duel between man and his fate. Often that fate was manipulated by other characters, as is the case here, with the brazen and scheming Iago.

Based on the Metropolitan Opera’s Elijah Moshinsky production of 1994, the only singer from the older cast who still survives here is Renée Fleming as Desdemona. As such it has a traditional, old-world feel.

But this opulent staging finds its boundaries in a natural way. David Kneuss’ stage directing is rather conservative, partly predictable, but very secure.

Over many decades the pre-eminent Otello of our time was Placido Domingo. Johan Botha is not in top form as the Moor, because of vocal unevenness. This matinee show was filmed shortly after Botha had to be replaced in three performances. Any signs of strain, mentioned by the opening-night critics, are mostly gone.

His interpretation shows that a strong mind is working through in support of a solid, though unexceptional, tenor. He adds a deal of pathos to convey Otello’s struggles, but only very seldom resorts to the type of histrionics associated with this role.

Not particularly Italianate in timbre, Botha still develops affecting resonances of his own.

Falk Struckmann, the 54-year-old German baritone, gives an insinuating account of Iago, the arch-conspirator. He uses his voice and a significant application of a subtle spectrum of body language to portray his character’s evil mind and actions. Struckmann is a real find, with a rough edge to his voice, befitting Iago’s scheming and manipulation.

Fleming has a slightly too-sweet disposition towards Desdemona in her vocal portrayal and physical acting. In the final act she is at her very best in her singing of Piangea Cantando (The Willow Song), followed by her intoning of Ave Maria.

Michael Fabiano is youthful and vocally quite fabulous as Cassio. He’s a natural talent, who will be a household name in a couple of years.

The Met Chorus produces empowered tone in a production where every member becomes an individual, while the orchestra is in keen form under the baton of Russian-born Semyon Bychkov, who brings to the score a blend of musical detail and theatrical dynamism.

Exceptional in this filmed Otello is the boldness of pictorial imagination at work. The principal characters are all probed unob-trusively and naturally by the cameras.

Screening at all Cinema Nouveau and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres.