Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Living in a Glass House without Being Able to See In or Out" (on Verdi's Otello)

living in a glass house without being able to see in or out

by Douglas Messerli

Arrigo Boito (libretto, from Shakespeare’s play as translated by Giulio Carcano and Victor Hugo), Giuseppe Verdi (composer), Bartlett Sher (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Otello / 2015 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Life in late 19th Cyprus is truly a communal affair—at least as imagined by director Bartlett Sher and set designer Es Devlin in the MET’s recent production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. Indeed the opera begins with a grand community event, the island’s citizens gathered, apparently in a heavy rain, to watch the return of their governor and general of the Venetian fleet as it attempts to find its way into safe harbor in a tempestuous storm. Despite temporary fears that the ship has been ripped apart, the Moor Otello (performed sans blackface in this production by Aleksanders Anntonenko) steers his vessel into port, announcing that he and his soldiers have been victorious in their fight against the Muslim Turks.
     In his absence, the young Venetian Roderigo (Chad Shelton) has arrived in Cyprus, and promptly fallen in love with Otello’s new wife, Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva), who has also joined the awaiting crowd for Otello’s return.

     Also in that gathering is Otello’s ensign, Iago (Želijo Lučić), envious of Cassio, who Otello has promoted to head officer instead of choosing him. When Roderigo confesses to Iago about his love of Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva), Iago pretends to befriend him, plotting a way to get back at Cassio by getting him drunk—a weakness that everyone seems to be aware of, including Cassio himself, who at first declines to drink—before egging on Roderigo to fight him. The fight and accidental wounds of a bystander and the former governor, Montano, who attempts to stop the fight, draws newly returned hero from his home, who in anger, dismisses Cassio for his actions and demands that all return to their homes.
     So begins the long series of downward-spiraling incidents, triggered by Iago’s intimations and outright lies, ending in Otello killing of the woman he loves.

      I have always been puzzled, even when reading Shakespeare, why Otello relies so heavily on Iago’s insinuations in a world in which he might have consulted with numerous others for the truth about events. Particularly in this production, wherein the governor and his people appear to be living in a massive, although constantly shifting, glass palace (the idea for this set came evidently from librettist Arrigo Boito’s comment to Verdi that they had put their hero into a “glass prison”) where nearly all behavior is transparent, it seems even stranger that Otello would choose to believe a man whom he, himself, apparently, did not choose to entrust as his head soldier. 
      Iago, we know even from his own lips, is simply evil, a man who believes in the basest values of all men, and with that knowledge we readily perceive him—unlike Otello—as a kind of Satan. But why can’t Otello see through him. Almost from the first moment that Iago hints that something is going on between Cassio and Desdemona, Otello is overwhelmed with jealousy and, from that moment on—despite his demand for evidence—goes along with Iago’s presentation of an alternate universe, a world into which one needs help to see clearly.

     What Verdi’s opera seems to suggest is that although Otello is a glorious military figure (in her last act Desdemona even sings that her husband’s destiny is to be a figure of “glory,” while she a figure doomed by “love”), the governor is not a particularly good leader—which may also to be the opinion of the Venetian representative who recalls Otello home to Venice, and plans to put Cassio in charge of Cyprus.
     Clearly, the great battler is unable to perceive the true natures of those people closest to him. In his glass world where nearly everything is openly shared and seen by all, Otello chooses instead to stare into the darkness that Iago creates for him. And in that inexplicable fact it is clear that Otello is not just blind to reality as he becomes consumed by the many-headed hydra, jealousy, but that he lives in a world apart from those around him, locked away in a selfish mania that is inconsistent with what everyone else (including the audience) perceives.

     Increasingly, as Otello slips into madness and Iago’s accusations against Desdemona become more and more absurd, his relationship with the evil being seems more and more perverse. Instead of turning to the being of honesty and truth whom he has married, Otello would rather marry (in its meaning of “uniting with” or “joining”) with Iago, where small signs and tokens (the sight of Cassio laughing about a woman, the appearance of a handkerchief) matter more than observing what is evident. 
      If the transparently innocent Desdemona is willfully destroyed in the process, the equally innocent Cassio claims his right to rule by killing Roderigo, restoring the light to which Otello has been blind.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2015).

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