“An exotic and irrational entertainment, which has been always combated, and always has prevailed.” Up to the first comma, Dr. Johnson’s roguish definition of opera has shown remarkable staying power. Today, the little-remembered concluding phrases are the part we need to cling to. Damn the pandemic! The show must go on!
And so it does, but at a distance, in archival video or fresh-killed on Zoom. We’ve even seen full-court-press grand opera played to houses that are empty, or nearly so, for far-flung fans in voluntary or enforced self-isolation. A case in point: the new Otello at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, in Florence, which premiered live on November 30 with an audience of 70,000 in virtual attendance. The octogenarian Zubin Mehta conducted, anchoring the score in foursquare gravitas. The tenor Fabio Sartori—once a welder, now a mainstay of the Italian repertory in top houses all over Europe—provided a news hook with his debut as the Moor of Venice. The production’s director, Valerio Binasco, advanced the action to the period of the Great War without losing himself in the weeds of Concept. The chorus, deployed like so many tin soldiers, hit their marks six feet apart, harmonizing through masks.