He is not, let's be clear, the dark-voiced hyper-intense Otello many here have come to expect after decades of Domingo. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the first place, part of Domingo's intense affect came -- even in his younger days -- from passage after passage pushing him to the limit. Botha has a much more spacious, "squillante" instrument that establishes his heroic significance by its very scope and unfettered ease. Indeed, the brighter sound and easier top notes are of a piece with his overall vocal fit, and in fact return to the powerful but relatively bright-toned (un-baritonal) tradition of not only the Met's greatest Otello -- the supremely musical Giovanni Martinelli -- but the part's creator Francesco Tamagno, who was also a noted Arnoldo (in Rossini's "Guglielmo Tell").
Now Botha doesn't have all the advantages: he (still) can't actually act. But somebody, presumably stage director Sharon Thomas, has trained him to limit the damage by avoiding the bad gestures or actions that would stick out and break the spell. And this is enough, here, for all of the character's love, pride, jealousy, confusion and rage are in Verdi's score, and every moment where Botha's (non)acting draws a blank is quickly followed by music his ringing tenor illuminates.
And what sort of Otello is thereby shown? Well, the cliche division of the part -- as with other Verdi tenors -- is between warrior (of the Esultate) and lover (of the duets). But one might also profitably distinguish between Otello the veteran (of battlefield, council-chamber, and all public things) and Otello the neophyte (of courtly love and intrigue). By character, voice, and natural inclination Botha's characters show their youth, and it's no less the case here. Now in years he has enough age to wonder if he's too old to appeal to Desdemona, but in experience it's not much to believe that slavery, exile, war, and advancement in a strange court and caste have kept Otello a hapless youth in his heart's first attachment: of men's esteem he is sure and knows his worth, but of a woman's -- the sine qua non of (most) men's existence -- how much then is he still unsure, still thrall to the harsh closed life in which such intimate trust looks impossible short of a miracle?
Like Elsa, Otello first touches, then fails to believe the miracle, but both up and down elicit tremendous lyric response. As Martinelli himself noted, the amount of lyric singing -- which Botha actually and properly delivers -- in the part dwarfs the dramatic declamation -- which Botha delivers, too, in sound at least. If one can accept that his physical presence and phrasing highlight the neophyte Otello, leaving the veteran side to Verdi and vocal impact, Botha delivers a big success, promising yet more for the future.
In Renee Fleming he has a Desdemona also rich in sonic glory, but that is a starting point. The passive pathos of the character suits her as perfectly as the lighter mixes of Strauss do not, and it is, as ever, a triumph. If Act IV's double aria did not, last night, have the complete spellbinding focus with which she sang it at the 2002 opening night gala, that's likely just the variability of performance: it was still terrific. If you haven't seen Fleming's Desdemona, you must.
Carlo Guelfi's Iago was precisely, if not hugely or recklessly delineated. Conductor Semyon Bychkov got iffy notices at the run's start, but whatever ensemble issues he had seem to have been worked out. Yesterday he was a great plus, bringing animal vigor and life to each phrase and line in the orchestra.
Put aside your preconceptions and go.