Stuttgart Ballet, Stuttgart State Opera,
Stuttgart, Germany July 5, 2013
Hamburg Ballet-John Neumeier, Hamburg State Opera,
Hamburg, Germany, September 15, 2013
by Ilona Landgraf
copyright 2013 by Ilona Landgraf
Northern as well as Southern Germany is well provided with ballets by doyen John Neumeier this season. In Munich his “A Midsummer Night's Dream” and “The Nutcracker” will be staged later this year, his “Othello” is scheduled twice: Stuttgart Ballet revived Shakespeare's tragedy in July, and Hamburg Ballet followed, having a little surprise in store.
Neumeier was not only responsible for the choreography, but also for the staging, set and costumes, and had designed a multifunctional metal scaffolding at the back of the stage, serving, for example, as tent-like bedchamber, or, with lifted canvas, a sailboat ready for the passage to Cyprus, and provided a platform for the orchestra on top. With the forestage extended to the first row and performers occasionally entering and leaving the stage through the auditorium one has the feeling of being in the thick of things.
The music is crucial in building up a highly intense atmosphere. This turned out to be a difficult task at the beginning, as the original commissioned score by Gerald Humel was discarded in 1976, the “Othello”-project shelved, and not until 1985 finally realized, this time to a collage of Renaissance compositions (representing the Venetian society and their historical dance), Alfred Schnittke's “Concerto grosso No.1” and Brazilian rhythms and recitatives by Naná Vasconcelos. His “Vozes”, suggesting babel as if entering a foreign culture as well as a sense of never-ending gossip, frames the performance. One leaves the auditorium at the end with these catchy tunes in mind. Vasconcelos' sultry, animalistic sounds, symbolizing emotional tensions, are mellowed by water, purling softly almost all the time (something I didn't notice in Stuttgart) and contrasted by Arvo Pärt's severe, sober clarity. The lovers' duet to Pärt's “Mirror in a Mirror”, dramaturgically the first key element, radiates peaceful calmness. No great movements, no big action, rather a moment when one can feel love's holiness. Twenty-six haunting minutes of “Tabula Rasa” – the second turning point – finally lead to both protagonists’ death.
How Neumeier deals with the fatal handkerchief is touch of a genius and has tremendous symbolic power. It's Othello's waistcloth, which he ties round Desdemona's middle, a loving gesture of taking her into possession and also a most intimate promise of mutual faithfulness. Later Othello will strangle himself exactly with this silk cloth.
“Othello’s” legendary success at the premiere was and still is largely attributed to the leading couple back then: Gamal Gouda and Gigi Hyatt. I only know video footage of their dancing and therefore cannot compare them with today's casts, but at least I'm not at risk of applying a yardstick which might be glorified by remembrance. Stuttgart's Jason Reilly, one of the company's outstanding dance-actors and in his prime as an artist, gives his Othello proud confidence and aplomb, a warrior commanding respect until drifting into uncontrollable, desperate rage. In Hamburg Cuban Amilcar Moret Gonzales, ex-principal of Neumeier's ensemble, came back as guest dancer for the role of the Moor. Gonzales, with his soft features and wide eyes, is less the embodiment of a tough, superior general, but charming in his amorousness. Both men strangle their Desdemonas out of love, but while Reilly is determined to kill, Gonzales seems as if Jago's influence has emptied him of all strength. He murders because he has to, though in fact he doesn’t want to. Each of the Desdemonas – Alicia Amatriain in Stuttgart, Helene Bouchet in Hamburg – has her own way of touching intensity. Innocent and still unaware of the sensuality slumbering inside, their intuition leads them firmly towards the awakening of their femininity. Bouchet brings girlish sweetness and also much elegance to the role while Amatriain is less frisky, more mature.
The piece's central figure, Jago, in Stuttgart danced by Evan McKie, characterizes this personification of guile and hate as a cold, aggressive creep. The sadism with which he treats his Emilia – superbly danced by Sue Jin Kang: haggard, abased but somehow masochistically proud in her submission – is hardly bearable. While the Stuttgart trio Reilly-Amatriain-McKie is balanced and the supporting roles strongly cast, Hamburg's Otto Bubeníček as Jago outplays his counterparts and dominates the stage with his strong presence. Bouchet indeed is strong, too, but Desdemona's role when in company is a passive one and at her main encounter with Jago she's already dead. Bubeníček gives us a subtle intriguer with a needle-sharp and pinpoint malice, while bawling aggressively is less his style. Chameleon-like he swiftly switches his character from fawning to scornful, from chummy to loathing. Carolina Agüero as his Emilia ducks away; she's tormented, is suffering, but not self-destructive like the Stuttgart Emilia.
Cassio, interpreted by Stuttgart's Alexander Jones, is a likeable, loyal and smart lieutenant. In Hamburg the role is entrusted to Edvin Revazov, whose Cassio is a zealous, though clumsy fellow, making me wonder if a general of Othello's caliber would have promoted him. Perhaps due to the beginning of the season, Hamburg's warriors would hardly win a war at the moment. Lizhong Wang's The Wild Warrior despite his make-up (dark body, garish red face) is lackluster, and the other warriors a bit at a loss at the sight of a whore. In this case their Stuttgart colleagues outstrip them.
And now to reveal the surprise Neumeier had up his sleeve. Regularly emphasizing that his choreographies are not cemented for eternity but reviewed and, if necessary, adjusted, he invented a new, modern passe-partout by providing Jago with a smart phone. At his first entrance Jago – his white shirt collar indicates that he's a man of our times – takes out this smart phone to snap a shot of Othello. At the end, when Desdemona has just been killed, he comes back in a slick gray suit, takes a photo of her and disappears, laughing scornfully at the completely distraught Othello.
On the one hand it's reasonable to emphasize that Shakespeare's “Othello” still is up-to-date, but I understand this as a hint of what's going on in the media and on the internet, where bullying via social media is unfortunately not uncommon. On the other hand, however, most of those harassing others in this way are rather callous and stupid, but rarely clever, sly string-pullers like Jago. To me his laughter no longer is the laughter of the epitome of evil at the good, but the laughter of many of our society's gray people without a clear idea of basic decency. This humiliates Othello much more deeply. Now even his suicide is hardly sufficient to restore his dignity. His expiatory sacrifice, his attempt to save the ethical orde, to save love, faithfulness and confidence, is not only pointless, but could be cause for mockery as well. Because who really cares for such outdated virtues?
Photos, from top:
Otto Bubeníček (Jago), Amilcar Moret Gonzales (Othello), Hamburg Ballet, © Holger Badekow 2013
Helene Bouchet (Desdemona), Amilcar Moret Gonzales (Othello), Hamburg Ballet, © Holger Badekow 2013
Alicia Amatriain (Desdemona), Jason Reilly (Othello), Stuttgart Ballet, © Stuttgart Ballet 2013
Sue Jin Kang (Emilia), Evan McKie (Jago), Stuttgart Ballet, © Stuttgart Ballet 2013