NEW YORK (AP) — For Yannick Nezet-Seguin, one of his key tests while conducting a performance of Verdi's "Otello" is how the audience responds early in Act 4.
It's the scene in which Otello's wife, Desdemona, is preparing for bed and sings the plaintive Willow Song followed by the Ave Maria.
"It's heartbreaking and painfully beautiful," said Nezet-Seguin, who will lead the Metropolitan Opera's live in HD performance on Saturday. "Yet it's very quiet and it comes after a long evening of noisy, highly dramatic music. We want to make sure the intimacy holds without falling flat."
How does he know he's succeeding? "There are always some coughs in the audience when the music first starts," he said in an interview this week, "and after a few minutes, I hear nothing."
Verdi's late masterpiece opened the season in a new dark and brooding production directed by Bartlett Sher that is notable for Es Devlin's sets featuring shifting glass panels and backdrops of storm clouds and turbulent waves. The cast is led by tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role, soprano Sonya Yoncheva as his wife and baritone Zeljko Lucic as his nemesis, Iago.
AN OPERA THAT ALMOST WASN'T
After the premiere of "Aida," his 26th opera, in 1871, the 58-year-old composer planned to retire. But Verdi was always immensely attracted to Shakespeare, and eventually his publisher got him to look at the libretto Arrigo Boito was working on for "Otello." Nezet-Seguin paraphrases Verdi's exuberant reaction: "This is what I've been waiting for all my life and I must do it!" The resulting work had a triumphant premiere in 1887, and Verdi would compose one more opera, "Falstaff," another Shakespeare adaptation by Boito, in 1893. Much earlier in his career, Verdi had written "Macbeth" and attempted without success to set "King Lear" to music.
MAKEUP MAKING NEWS
In every previous performance of "Otello" at the Met, the title character has been portrayed by a white tenor wearing some version of blackface aimed at making him resemble a Moor. Antonenko is white but he is not wearing any darkening makeup, a decision Met general manager Peter Gelb said was aimed at discarding the vestiges of a racist tradition.
Yoncheva, a 33-year-old Bulgarian soprano, has had a meteoric rise since her Met debut less than two years ago as Gilda in an earlier Verdi opera, "Rigoletto." Over the years Desdemona has been a vehicle for some auspicious Met debuts, including Renata Tebaldi in 1955, Kiri Te Kanawa in 1974 and Margaret Price in 1985.
WHERE TO SEE IT
The Met's HD broadcast will be shown live in movie theaters around the world starting at 1 p.m. EDT on Saturday. A list of theaters can be found at the Met's website: http://www.metopera.org. In the U.S., it will be repeated on Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 6:30 p.m. local time.