It’s hard for a conductor not to make an impression with the surefire opening of Verdi’s “Otello.” The terrified people of Cyprus look out to sea where a vicious storm is battering the ship carrying home Otello, their governor. The orchestra captures the sounds of crackling thunder and roiling waves; chorus members erupt with cries of fear as they see the ship tottering.
Gustavo Dudamel, one of the most dynamic conductors of our time and, arguably, at 37, the face of classical music today, made the most of this scene in his much-anticipated debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, when Bartlett Sher’s sleekly contemporary 2015 production returned to the house. The orchestra seethed and heaved with intensity. Slashing chords had raw, brassy power. Mr. Dudamel kept the scattered choral declamation and fitful orchestral stretches in sync, while making the episode seem utterly spontaneous. And when the full chorus breaks into a collective appeal to God to save the ship, Mr. Dudamel pulled back the tempo to give more lyrical fullness to the pleading melodic line.
From the compelling way he handled this stormy opening it seemed like we were in good hands. Mr. Dudamel came through, leading a surely paced, textured and exciting performance of a challenging score. If there were no interpretive revelations — and, for me, a couple of scenes that lacked tragic weight — this was still a significant, and overdue, debut.
Though Mr. Dudamel is best known for his visionary leadership at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he has actually conducted quite a bit of opera, including appearances at La Scala, the Berlin State Opera and the Paris Opera. And he’s innovatively presented operas at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
His feeling for Verdi came through especially during the opera’s tender scenes. In the great Act I love duet, he conveyed the bliss and rapture of the music, while giving play to its nervous flutterings. He sensitively followed the lead of the soprano Sonya Yoncheva, an exquisite, uncommonly passionate Desdemona, as she shaped the character’s soaring vocal lines with suppleness and ardor. And during moments when Otello (the tenor Carl Tanner) can barely contain his breathless desire for his new wife, Mr. Dudamel made the palpitations that course through the orchestra seem like panting.
On this night, he demonstrated another skill opera conductors must have: the ability to adjust to cast changes. Mr. Tanner had taken the place of the scheduled Otello, Stuart Skelton, who was ill. It surely helped that Mr. Tanner had sung the dress rehearsal, and then had an extra coaching session on Friday with Mr. Dudamel at a piano.
Mr. Tanner proved a solid, if somewhat blunt Otello, with a burly voice that can turn shaky during vocally sustained passages. But he summoned the requisite power and intemperance when the villainous Iago fills Otello with doubts about Desdemona’s faithfulness.
Yet, Otello’s wrenching soliloquy in Act III fell flat here. This emotionally broken leader sings to God in halting phrases that he could have withstood any other trial — poverty, a failure turning his military trophies into a heap of rubble — better than the torture of doubt and humiliation over what he thinks is his wife’s betrayal. In this grippingly understated music, I wanted more sense that Otello is shattered, almost unable to function — a quality Mr. Tanner did not convey. And Mr. Dudamel’s conducting, though aptly subdued, was a little square.
The baritone Zeljko Lucic, the Iago when this production was introduced, was again excellent, singing with dark, brawny sound. During the chilling “Credo,” when Iago declares that he was shaped in the image of a cruel God and that life is a mockery ending in nothingness, both Mr. Lucic and Mr. Dudamel took the soliloquy at face value to chilling effect. There was no hint that Iago might be inwardly tormented. The orchestra playing was lean and mean.
Ms. Yoncheva, the Desdemona when this production had its premiere, was even better on this night. During the final scene as Desdemona prepares for bed, Ms. Yoncheva blended vocal radiance and aching sadness in her performance of the wistful “Willow Song.” In a recent interview, Mr. Dudamel said that the tender harmonies in the strings that usher in Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” prayer may be his favorite moment of the entire opera. He drew softly luminous sounds from the orchestra, and then beautifully cushioned Ms. Yoncheva’s eloquent singing.
Though it’s essential to bring major conductors to the Met, the long rehearsal and performance schedule involved makes this difficult. That Mr. Dudamel has finally arrived is an important signifier for the company.
Through Jan. 10 at the Metropolitan Opera. 212-362-6000. metopera.org
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