Falso Movimento

Teatro Olimpico

This performance group’s Otello is derived not from Shakespeare but from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. More melodramatic than dramatic, it freely mixes genres and visual references ranging from the Renaissance to 19th-century romantic iconography to modern cinema. The lip-synced text is partly taken from the original libretto, by Arrigo Boito, and partly written by the performers themselves, but the word plays a minor, almost casual role in this piece; the music is the true protagonist. Verdi’s score has been reworked by Peter Gordon, who, using a Herbert von Karajan recording of the opera, superimposes suggestive saxophone passages and repeats, mixes, and elaborates on musical phrases. The atmosphere varies from dramatic intensity to a repetitive, jazzy mood, but the original score, modified though it is, is not denied; in fact, the debt owed to it is emphasized in a sort of homage.

The performance was conceived by Gordon and the director Mario Martone, who shared a desire to use conventional theatrical elements—music, iconography, actors—in a newly dynamic way. The result is a musical drama whose various parts are interwoven with geometrical precision. The set, for example, features a curtain running from one side of the stage to the other; films and slides are projected on it from both front and back. What is on stage intermingles with the projected images, while the actors cast expressionistic shadows, creating reproductions of the action and dance sequences in fluid continuity with the original gestures.

The story opens with a doubt whose effect is immediate. Othello and Desdemona meet in a turbulent ballet, with the heated atmosphere intensified by whispered, reciprocally seductive dialogue. Othello wears black, while Desdemona is a sensual, desperate, Marilyn Monroe blonde. Iago appears, dancing Fred Astaire–style against a Renaissance Venice backdrop out of Carpaccio. The voyage to Cyprus is handled through a repertory of images including port scenes from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle, evocations of the steamship Normandie (a nod to the liner Rex in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord), Gustave Doré engravings, excerpts from esoteric ’40s movies, ironic animated segments, and traditional theatrical reconstructions. This barrage is followed by the duel between Othello and Iago; the two men battle among rows of columns, their movements alternating among precise, quick sequences, bursts of speed, and hesitations.

The theme of jealousy is developed not in the clear, melodic strains of Verdi but in a rhythmic structure that mixes electronic passages with traditional instruments and the original opera with rock and jazz. This musical mélange finds its visual equivalent in a scene in a North African casbah, with sounds and sights dissolving, taking on imprecise, liquid values. There is an ironical allusion to the colonial nostalgia of certain French films and to the view of Africa as a place of primitive desire and heightened sensuality. The final crime takes place in a neo-Gothic castle; in a setting that combines nuptial bedroom and torture chamber, the two lovers carry out the rite of love and death.

The movements of the actors have geometric connotations. Othello is weighty, massive in his leather cape—a volume; Desdemona is sinuous—a curve. Iago is a projection of speed, a dynamic line. The action follows this arrangement, its continuous mix of theater, film, dance, mime, opera, and contemporary music all put to the service of motion. To perform Verdi’s work—the quintessence of 19th-century theatrical conventions—is to accept the dividing line between the world and the “unreal” space of the stage, but in its confusion of the stage space with the illusionistic plane of the cinematographic image Falso Movimento’s Otello is an ironic challenge to those conventions as well.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.