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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello (1884-86)
Opera in four acts, libretto by Arrigo Boito
Otello – Placido Domingo (tenor)
Iago – Leo Nucci (baritone)
Desdemona – Barbara Fritolli (soprano)
Cassio – Cesare Catani (tenor)
Roderigo – Antonello Ceron (tenor)
Emilia – Rossana Rinaldi (mezzo)
Lodovico – G. Battista Parodi (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
Stage Director – Graham Vick
TV Director – Carlo Battistoni
Recorded at La Scala, Milan, December 2001
[140 minutes]

I suppose this was always bound to be something rather special - Verdi’s greatest drama picked as the last production before one of the world’s most famous opera houses shut for major refurbishment. Add to that the last assumption of the title role by the finest Otello of our generation, Italy’s most respected maestro in the pit and the appetite is well and truly whetted. I should also point out that the huge responsibility for directing such an important production fell to one of our own, Graham Vick, and shows the esteem in which many Britain’s theatre directors are held.

It was probably never on the cards that Vick would do anything controversial given the circumstances, and true to form he gives us a commendably ‘straight’ production, period costumes, swords etc., and it’s none the worse for it. Veteran Ezio Frigerio’s huge grey circular design is the central image, emphasising the tragic circle unfolding before our eyes, yet allowing space for the characters to rightly dominate the action.

Domingo never gives less than full commitment in any performance, but here he is obviously inspired to go the extra yard. The voice has darkened considerably in the last few years, but in this part that can be an advantage. Yes, it does mean we don’t get quite the spine-tingling ‘Exultate’ entrance that we got on disc for Chung (DG) or especially for Levine back in the 1970s (RCA). But it must be remembered that this is a stage performance, a long night for him, and things must be carefully graded. What we do get is superb acting coupled with a rich, almost baritonal voice that reminded me of Toscanini’s Otello, Ramon Vinay, and there can be no higher praise. Throughout the production there are illuminations of character and subtle eye contacts, none of which are lost on the TV director. His descent into a jealous rage bordering on madness is charted with unnerving accuracy, and one really does feel for his Desdemona, which of course one should.

In this part we have the superb Barbara Frittoli, looking and sounding virtually ideal. It becomes easy to see why this Desdemona is adored by everyone, young and old; the vulnerability displayed in the famous ‘Willow Song’ goes straight to the heart. She manages to vary each repetition of the verses minutely, thus avoiding any hint of boredom or note-spinning that can happen in the wrong hands.

Doubts were expressed about the Iago of Leo Nucci, but I have to say I have no problem here. He is not the larger-than-life villain we used to get from, say, Sherrill Milnes, thrilling though that was. He is small in stature (certainly against Domingo) but this only makes the subtle insinuations and conniving that much more serpent-like. The voice, as can be heard in his ‘Credo’, is still in immensely fine fettle, and he matches Domingo all the way in the great duet that closes Act 2, ‘Si, pel ciel’. He was a marvellous Scarpia in Muti’s Scala Tosca recently, and many of those fine qualities are on show here, particularly the stage experience and lack of corny gestures.

Muti’s conducting also has an edge that may be to do with the occasion. His Tosca I found a little run-of-the-mill, but here he sets the pit alight with the sort of performance we used to expect from him, daring, urgent, rhythmically alive and inspiring his orchestra to give of their best. He is also alert to the tender moments, and I have rarely heard the glorious cello passage that starts the Act 1 love duet (‘Gia nella notte’) phrased more persuasively.

It is hard not to give this a completely unqualified recommendation. All the smaller roles are taken with relish, camera work is effective and unobtrusive, and Vick’s stagecraft must be counted a triumph, from the large-scale chorus work to the individual characterisations he has helped mould. A special word of praise too for one of his regular collaborators, Matthew Richardson, whose lighting helps get the most out of Frigerio’s eye-catching designs. No extras on this single DVD, but with a production of this quality, who needs them?

Tony Haywood


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