Birmingham Opera's Otello, on BBC2

For those who have had their fill of immaculately filmed end on performances from the world’s most elegant opera houses, the Beeb are screening something a little bit different.

In 2009, BO created a new and immersive production of Verdi’s Othello in a former industrial plant.    The production was ground-breaking in many ways, and it’s well worth watching to see what can be done with opera if nothing else.

The singing (in a slightly old-fashioned English translation which doesn’t quite do justice to the staging) has highs and lows (no pun intended), but Keel Watson steals the show completely as the devious Iago; his presence, vocals and emotion are outstanding.  Having black performers sing both Iago and Cassio disrupts Shakespeare’s intended dynamic, but it stirs up expectations and certainly complicates what might seem like (again forgive the pun) the black and white motives suggested by the Bard.

Phenomenal in this production is the chorus.  Two hundred and fifty locals create an extraordinary sound; not always pleasant, but utterly gripping as they take on the sinister roles of soldiers, revellers, and crowds.  The rawness of the singing is dramatically satisfying.

Overall, the production has a dark intensity though the narrative gets fuzzy in places.  Definitely one to watch.

The opera itself sticks relatively closely to Shakespeare’s plot, though the addition of an epic sea battle and storm in Act 1 give the huge chorus in this production a real chance to shine, and the wildness of the setting is really helpful here.  Also, rather than being set in Venice, Verdi relocates the action to war torn Cyprus allowing for some big open cast scenes, rather than the dark small calles and Vicoli and the intimate spaces of Shakespeare’s play.

Iago pretends to be in cahoots with the lovelorn Roderigo – the fool of Shakespeare’s peace, whom Iago uses as a “purse”. Iago promises that Desdemona can be won from Othello for Roderigo.    However, Iago has his own grievances.  Cassio has been made captain in Iago’s place and his first mission is to see the young man stripped of this honour.  He proceeds to get Cassio drunk on the watch.  When Montano, the former governor arrives, Iago lies to him; telling him that Cassio is a drunkard.  When Roderigo mocks him, Cassio loses his cool.  He also threatens Montano; when Othello arrives and sees the brawl, he demotes Cassio for his behaviour.

We then see a love scene between Othello and Desdemona.

At the start of Act 2, Iago appeals to Desdemona that she should take Cassio’s part to her husband and get the young man reinstated.  Iago then begins to posit doubts in Othello’s mind about his wife’s fidelity.  Without ever saying anything concrete, he manages to convince Othello that Desdemona is starting a liaison with Cassio.

Of course, Desdemona, on Iago’s bidding, then arrive and pleads for Cassio.  Othello is surly and claims to have a headache.  She tries to sooth him with a handkerchief with she was given by Othello as a gift.  The handkerchief ends the scene on the floor.  Emilia, Iago’s wife, picks it up; but her husband demands that she give it to him.  She refuses, and he takes it by force.  He will plant this handkerchief on Cassio, via the ex-captain's girlfriend.

In the final scene of the Act, Iago tells Othello that he has heard Cassio speaking in his sleep about Desdemona, and remarks that he saw the young captain with Desdemona’s handkerchief. Othello is now nearly convinced of her wickedness.

In Act 3 Iago promises to lure Cassio in and Othello can watch as they speak.  Desdemona enters and again asks her husband to reinstate Cassio.  Othello tells her his headache has returned.  When she produces a different handkerchief to sooth him, he asks her where the one that he gave her is.  She is unable to answer satisfactorily, and he becomes anger.  She professes her love for him and fidelity, but he is now having none of it.

Othello then watches as Iago talks to Cassio about “a woman”, but Othello does not hear Iago make it clear to Cassio that their discussion is about Bianca, with whom Cassio is having an affair.  Cassio then produces Desdemona’s handkerchief, announcing that the woman gave it him.

The Venetian ambassador, Lodovico, then arrives.  

Lodovico notes that Cassio is not present, and Othello declares that Cassio is out of favour, when Desdemona declares that she hopes the young man will soon be restored, Othello becomes violently angry.  A letter arrives declaring Cassio the new governor of Cyprus and recalling Othello to Venice.  Furious, Othello throws Desdemona to the ground, where she laments as the other characters express their feelings in a big musical layered number. 

The final act brings the inescapable tragedy.  Othello murders his wife, only to discover that he has got everything wrong.  Seeing his guilt, he takes his own life.

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