What a problem Verdi left to us in casting his Otello.
It’s not such a problem nowadays with the original Shakespeare. As early as 1959 I saw the amazing Paul Robeson on the stage at Stratford (Sam Wanamaker his savage Iago, Mary Ure a delectable Desdemona). And later (in 1989) Willard White at the Young Vic (Iago ‒ Ian McKellen, Desdemona ‒ Imogen Stubbs).
If only Verdi hadn’t conceived his Moor as a tenor, both of those great black bass-baritones might have been just the ticket. But he didn’t. He demands not just any old tenor, but a genuine dramatic one, with a powerful ringing top and a baritonal timbre. What’s more, one who can act. These creatures are hard to find.
And all that is still not enough. In our enlightened times, it’s no longer satisfying to have a white man blacked up, often conjuring up stereotypical black gestures and accents. Shades of the ghastly Laurence Olivier performance.
When I saw the exciting Graham Vick production of the Verdi with his Birmingham Opera Company a few years ago, Vick cast the West Indian Ronald Samm in the role. Samm was good, perhaps very good. But not great.
So what was David Alden to do in his new production for ENO at the Coliseum?
He has at his disposal perhaps the finest dramatic tenor of this generation, the Australian Stuart Skelton, who has the ideal vocal equipment and acts powerfully, but is oh so white. Alden has left Skelton au naturel, no blacking up. And the result is an unforgettable evening in the opera theatre.
And yet. And yet, there’s still something missing in this wonderful evening, and that is the shocking fact that the Moor is black, not white ‒ a former slave, an outsider and misfit in Venetian society.