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Verdi, Otello:
(Concert Performance) Soloists, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Sir Colin Davis. Barbican Hall, London. 6.12.2009 (JPr)

After the success of Aida in 1871 and his Requiem three years later,  Verdi seemed impossible to entice from the country estate that his triumphs had afforded him, back into the theatre. Several years elapsed until his penultimate opera and when he eventually composed it he used far richer instrumentation than in any of his earlier works: Otello is very nearly a music-drama, though clearly isn’t one. When Otello is  compared to Verdi’s earlier compositions,  he can seem somewhat Wagnerian, though compared to Wagner he still remains what he actually is … characteristically Italian.

We can thank Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, for this wonderful work and he has explained how the idea arose during a dinner with friends: ‘… I chanced to turn the conversation on Shakespeare and Boito. At the mention of Othello I saw Verdi look sharply at me, with suspicion but with interest. . . . Next day when on my advice Faccio (a conductor and composer) brought Boito to Verdi's hotel with the scheme of the libretto already outlined, the composer, having examined it and found it excellent, had no wish to compromise himself. He said, “Now put it into verse. It will come in handy for yourself . . . for me . . . for someone else.” ’

Arrigo Boito was a distinguished poet and musician and as the composer of Mefistofele was perceived to be one of the most talented figures working in Italian opera at that time.  Ricordi encouraged Boito to finish the Otello libretto and eventually Verdi agreed to work on it with him. There was much discussion over different drafts, they cut out entire parts of Shakespeare's play (primarily the first act), changed lines, altered the use or motivation of characters, such as  including women in the drinking scene and having Jago (as in the opera) give voice to Boito’s own metaphysical beliefs in his Act II ‘Credo’. Finally they had to decide on the title for the opera as Verdi had originally wanted to call it Jago but in a letter in 1886 to Boito, the composer wrote: ‘It's true that [Iago] is the demon who sets everything in motion: but it is Othello who acts: he loves, is jealous, kills and is killed. For my part I would find it hypocritical not to call it Otello’.

It is difficult to explain the relative lack of public success of Verdi’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff; the latter has another Boito libretto and is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of opera though it is not frequently staged. A new production of Otello is also a rare event yet, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, and Aida, among a few others, are staples of the repertory, even if Rigoletto was composed 36 years before Otello and 42 years before Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff. Of course, the rareness of Otello performances in the UK particularly,  will be due to other reasons these days such as the libretto’s racism and the un-PC possibility of having to put make-up on a white singer to hint, at least, that he is supposed to be a Moor. The audience at the Barbican had to endure mildly contentious lines in translation displayed on the surtitles, such as, ‘Desdemona will soon tire of that savage’s embrace’ and Otello asking Desdemona ‘Is it perhaps my race?’

Nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear this score  conducted once again by Sir Colin Davis some thirty years after he was involved in one of my earliest operatic memories:  I saw Jon Vickers singing Otello at Covent Garden in 1980. Colin Davis is now 82,  yet he plunged into Verdi’s opening storm with the enthusiasm of someone decades younger.  Sir Colin is not revered as much for his Verdi as he is for many other composers and the well-prepared performance - rich in orchestra detail as it was - had just a little too much English country house gentility about it and needed more red-hot Italian passion. This was reflected in the contributions of the London Symphony Chorus who to their credit delivered the great opening numbers with magnificent force. Yet the importance of the chorus in Otello ranks amongst Verdi's finest achievements; the composer drew on a lifetime of lyric theatre experience in using collective choral energy to create dramatic excitement. The London Symphony Chorus clearly has vocal talent but were too genteel for instance in the ‘Fuoco di gioia!’ bonfire chorus  - and many other of their ensemble pieces lacked the bite and pungency of a well-drilled opera house chorus. I also missed the children’s voices needed to pay homage to Desdemona in Act II. Sadly too,  the sheer numbers in the chorus and on the platform produced a volume of sound that overwhelmed the limited acoustic capacity of the Barbican Hall at times. The best moments were when the fire and brimstone died away to give us the starry sky and moonshine of the Act I love duet, and nearer the end of the opera, the painful resignation of Desdemona’s bedchamber and Otello’s menacing approach heralded by the growling basses.

This was the second of two performances  recorded for the LSO Live label and LSO’s plans were disrupted by the sickness of the Torsten Kerl who was to have sung Otello but withdrew at the eleventh hour. Much to his credit, New Zealander Simon O’Neill agreed to sing the part despite never having sung it in public before and with no plans to add the role to his repertoire until 2012. The first performance seems to have gone well enough and I am sure he was more relaxed for this one. He was in excellent voice, and although physically he showed evidence of his exertions later in the evening,  his voice retained an almost perfect, and tireless, stentorian intensity throughout. There was also no lack of lovely Italianate musical refinements to savour in a heroic voice which has a pitch-perfect squillo-like top. This brilliance perhaps does not extent completely downwards through the voice yet,  but this is just quibbling. This was a significant role debut and Simon O’Neill has the possibility to reclaim Otello from the darker-hued tenors to whom we have become more used to hearing these days. O'Neill can - or soon will at least -  take us back to an earlier Golden Age and  the closest I’ve ever heard to his voice is Charles Craig's - very  good company to be in.   For a stage production O'Neill  will be undoubtedly be given coaching and direction and this will help him discover more of Otello’s inner demons: at the moment most of the Moor’s flashes of palpable temper come over as mere mild tetchiness. However, he did sing a deeply affecting ‘Niun mi tema’ which  punctuated his considerable achievement perfectly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ performance as Desdemona was a mixed bag; in her flowing white creation she looked more like Elsa than Desdemona. The German repertoire would appear to be her more natural environment as few Italian words were discernable though she sang throughout with poise and a commanding dignity. Often her contributions had an unassuming silvery beauty yet under pressure her tone spread alarmingly. Nevertheless the Act IV ‘Willow Song’ was an extremely poignant mixture of regret, sadness, and courage.

There was further unusual casting with Gerald Finley, who is not primarily known as a Verdi baritone, singing a charismatic Jago. He had a suitable insouciant look of the black-hearted villain and had the wonderful dramatic capacity to sour his voice with malice and without sacrificing strength, to bring out all the evil beauty and horror of his character. Despite all this though,  he had  an  essentiallylaid-back approach to the role that might not resonate so well in the opera house as on the concert platform.

In supporting roles young lightweight tenors Allan Clayton (Cassio) and Ben Johnson (Roderigo) and dark basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Lodovico), Matthew Rose (Montano) and Lukas Jakobski (Herald) made the best of their fleeting opportunities. However a less than secure young Italian mezzo, Eufemia Tufano, was a disappointing Emilia.

Overall, this concert should be remembered for one of Simon O’Neill’s first Otello and is best praised by my very faint damns since  it was a typical concert performance with the  singers' heads often in their scores and little interaction or acknowledgement of  the other characters they might be singing with  -or about. Jago and Otello were often on opposite sides of the podium and surely Cassio could have brandished a handkerchief of sorts at the appropriate moment in Act III? Fortunately however, Anne Schwanewilms’ Desdemona crossed herself at the end of the Ave Maria and ‘expired’ in her seat to offer a final hint of the real drama of Verdi’s great tragedy.

Jim Pritchard


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