Première of Giuseppe Verdi´s OTELLO

The première and the production

Otello on 20 June 2019 is the last première in the programme for the current season at the Wiener Staatsoper. Shortly after its world première in 1887 at Milan’s La Scala, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name came to the opera house on the Ring for the first time in March 1888, and has since been a regular feature in the repertoire, with brief interruptions. After the last première in October 2006 (conducted by Daniele Gatti, directed by Christine Mielitz) there is now a new production of Verdi’s dramma lirico in four acts.

It will be conducted by internationally acclaimed Myung-Whun Chung, currently First Guest Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, among other positions. He debuted at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2011 with Simon Boccanegra, and subsequently conducted performances of La Traviata, the première of Rigoletto (2014) and Don Carlo. Otello will be his fifth Verdi opera at the Wiener Staatsoper.

The upcoming new production is directed by Adrian Noble, his third production at the Wiener Staatsoper after Alcina (2010) and Hansel und Gretel (2015). With this piece, Noble returns indirectly to his roots – the British actor was for years first a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then its artistic director and chief executive. He began his consideration of this production with two aspects: the known but relatively unexplored changes that Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boïto made to Shakespeare’s original for their opera, and the fact that Shakespeare regarded (sexual) jealousy as the most dangerous and destructive human emotion in its gruesome effects, going well beyond hate and rage. Both these initial points would be decisive for the direction. Noble and his stage and costume designer Dick Bird – who has previously worked (among other houses) at the New York Met, London’s Royal Opera House, the Opéra Comique, the Bregenz Festival, the Globe Theatre, the National Ballet of Japan and the English National Ballet, and who is appearing for the first time at the Wiener Staatsoper with Otello – found inspiration in the works of Ibsen and Strindberg and their psychological exploration of the facets of jealousy, and in some paintings by Edward Munch, who also took jealousy as a subject, and ideally visualised the Otello-Desdemona-Cassio relationship.
Verdi and Boïto naturally had to cut the Shakespearean original and compress it for the needs of music theatre, including omitting the first act of the play entirely in the opera, although its content, as Adrian Noble put it, “has to be solidly anchored in the minds of the singers and incorporated into their action”. A particularly striking feature is the addition of Iago’s central credo. In an interview with Andreas Láng for the Staatsoper magazine “Prolog”, Noble adds laughing, “I think Verdi and Boïto spent many evenings together just talking about why Iago is the way he is, why he actually does all this to Otello.” In fact, Shakespeare does not explain Iago’s deeds at all, instead portraying an extremely complex and unapproachable figure whom he does not judge. “The credo undoubtedly takes away some of Iago’s ambiguity in the opera, he becomes darker, more evil, making him more understandable – and suitable for opera.” And he becomes part of a religious structure which runs throughout the action and is picked up by Noble and visualized as such. For example, in her purity Desdemona is given the iconographic position of the Madonna, and the storm at the beginning has something of the Last Day, as Andreas Láng describes the coming new production. Adrian Noble and his designer move the action of Otello to the start of the 20th century, where the atmosphere of the setting is dominated by the contrast of the Venetian occupiers on the one hand and the local population (partly Muslim) on the other hand. The background of colonialism makes the tensions between the foreign rulers and the local subjects more apparent.

As in Adrian Noble’s productions of Alcina and Hansel und Gretel at the Wiener Staatsoper, the lighting designer is Jean Kalman.

The Cast

Aleksandr Antonenko, the popular Latvian tenor, sings the title role. In great demand internationally, Antonenko debuted at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2006 as Des Grieux (Manon Lescaut), and also sang Hermann (Pique Dame), Otello, Cavaradossi (Tosca) and Dick Johnson (La fanciulla del West) – the new Otello is his first première production at the house. In an interview with Oliver Láng for Prolog, he was asked what is the first thing that strikes him about Otello. “The love, that’s undoubtedly the first thing of all. Absolutely! Naturally, I also see a lot of other things, but for me the first and foremost thing in this opera is love. And then the second is jealousy. The two are closely associated in Otello, the central emotions which feed into his actions.” Asked if Otello loves Desdemona too much or too little, he says: “I don’t know if you can answer that simply. He loves her very much, that’s a fact. The fact that he kills her because she betrays him, that’s something else again. He’s concerned, and he appears as a priest here, that she shouldn’t lose her soul. We should never forget, Otello is a story from the 16th century, Shakespeare came out with it at the start of the 17th century, and then it was seen through Verdi’s eyes, i.e. in the 19th century. But the story works, one way or the other. Because these are timeless themes and motivations in our experience, jealousy and envy. This isn’t something which would only have appeared in one period. And this is why we can still understand the Otello story today, and it’s just as topical as it was in Shakespeare’s or Verdi’s time. The surroundings are just different. I don’t know how the story would have played out in the cell phone age…”

Desdemona is sung by the Wiener Staatsoper ensemble member Olga Bezsmertna, also much in demand internationally. She is well known to audiences here from her countless appearances, including as Contessa d’Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Rusalka, Tatyana (Eugene Onegin), Pamina (The Magic Flute), Mimì (La Bohème) and Rachel (La Juive). She has already appeared as Desdemona in 2017, and Otello is her fifth Wiener Staatsoper première after Ariadne auf Naxos (as Echo), Armide (as Phénice), Pelléas et Mélisande (as Mélisande) and most recently Dantons Tod (as Lucile). Her first thoughts on Otello relate to “the incredible music. I always ask myself how Verdi could do this in his old age, after such a rich body of work. Otello wasn’t exactly his favourite project at first – and then this music! With so much power, so much tension. And intensity. Naturally, there’s a lot in the piece – love, passion, jealousy. But the music embraces it all and makes it a whole. This is why it’s always the focus for me, and it’s what first strikes me. And I don’t mean just my role, but the whole opera.” She sees her Desdemona as complementary to Iago in colour. “She’s angelic. That’s her, simply!” as she remarks in the interview with Oliver Láng.

Iago is sung by Belorus baritone Vladislav Sulimsky in his Wiener Staatsoper debut. He was engaged as a soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in 2004, and his guest appearances include Malmö, Stockholm, Baden-Baden, Theater an der Wien, Moscow, Basel, Edinburgh, Paris, Madrid, Turin, Berlin and the Salzburg Festival.

The other parts are sung by Wiener Staatsoper ensemble members Margarita Gritskova (Emilia – her debut in the role here), with Jinxu Xiahou as Cassio, Leonardo Navarro as Roderigo, Jongmin Park as Lodovico (instead of Ryan Speedo Green, his debut in the role here), Manuel Walser as Montano (his debut in the role here) and Katharina Billerhart as Bianca.Otello im Livestream, im Radio sowie am Wiener Rathausplatz

The orchestra is the Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra with the Stage Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper; also performing are the Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Wiener Staatsoper under their director Thomas Lang, and the children of the Wiener Staatsoper Opera School.

Otello on Livestream, radio and on Vienna’s Rathausplatz

The première on 20 June 2019 will be transmitted live worldwide in HD on WIENER STAATSOPER live at home ( and live with a time delay from 7.30 p.m. on Radio Ö1 (+ EBU).

The performance on 30 June 2019 will be transmitted live with a time delay as part of the Film Festival on Vienna’s Rathausplatz.

Giuseppe Verdi
20th*, 24th, 27th, 30th, 2019
*= Livestream

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