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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Otello (1887)
Giovanni Martinelli (tenor) – Otello; Elizabeth Rethberg (soprano) – Desdemona; Lawrence Tibbett (baritone) – Iago; Nicholas Massue (tenor) – Cassio; Thelma Votipka (mezzo) – Emilia; Giovanni Paltrinieri (tenor) – Roderigo; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Lodovico; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Montano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Ettore Panizza
Recorded at the New York Metropolitan Opera, 12 February 1938
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111018-19 [75:00 + 75:00]


In his absorbing book, Classical Music in America. A History of its Rise and Fall (New York 2005) pp. 368-9, Joseph Horowitz is loud in his praise of this performance of Otello. He opines that it "documents the interwar Met at its finest." He is warm in his praise of the three principals and, indeed, of the contribution of the Met’s orchestra and of conductor Ettore Panizza. By coincidence, within a few weeks of reading that book I found that Naxos had obligingly issued the selfsame recording so I had to sample it for myself. Suffice to say that Mr. Horowitz has not overstated his case.

My colleague, Göran Forsling, has already discussed the origins of the source material for these transfers review. Ward Marston has done his usual sterling job in preparing the transfers for Naxos although, as he makes clear in a liner note, a vast amount of remedial work was required. Even then, there is surface noise throughout the recording and on occasion, as at the start of Act Four, the intrusion becomes significant. However, this is one of those occasions where the sheer quality and thrill of the music making compels one to listen through the crackles and hisses and hear what is truly a remarkable performance of Verdi’s tragic masterpiece.

To preserve the integrity of the recording the radio announcements at the very beginning and at the end of each of the first three acts have been retained. I don’t see what else could have been done but the announcer’s comments are lengthy and somewhat intrusive and I suspect that many listeners will do as I did and skip them. That’s a very minor matter. It’s the music that counts.

I could give umpteen examples of the excellence of each of the three principal singers. Let one or two suffice in respect of each. Firstly Lawrence Tibbett. I wonder if there’s ever been a more sinister and malevolent yet plausible Iago? In Act Two ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ is a riveting piece of vocal malevolence. Tibbett’s is a truly malign presence at this point and he conveys to me a self-knowing that is quite terrifying. It’s a staggering piece of singing; he projects venom! Just a little later in the same act ‘Temerte, signor, la gelosia!’ is quite chillingly two-faced. Throughout the opera whenever Tibbett sings he commands attention – and fear!

Iago’s victim, Otello, is magnificently portrayed by Giovanni Martinelli. At his first appearance the great cry, ‘Esultate’ is heard somewhat distantly. (I imagine he was at the back of the stage and the microphone struggled to catch his voice.) Yet even at a distance you can tell that the voice is ringing out superbly. What must it have been like in the theatre that night? Martinelli’s voice possesses a thrilling, easy top but in the lower register there’s a baritonal richness that is just right for this role. (It’s one of several reasons why I happen to think Placido Domingo is suited for this role and Luciano Pavarotti is not.) This characteristic is heard to good effect in such passages as ‘ Già nella notte densa’ in Act One. The whole reunion scene with Desdemona that follows displays a spellbinding chemistry between Martinelli and Rethberg and although he has ample vocal power Martinelli can still sing with great tenderness, as he demonstrates at ‘un baccio’ towards the end of this marvellous scene.

Later on, when Iago has begun to weave his web of deception ever more tightly around the Moor, Martinelli again rises to every challenge that Verdi sets him. In Act Two he produces some incandescent singing in the passage beginning at ‘Tu?! Indietrio! Fugi!’ As Otello’s suspicions and rage towards Desdemona mount Martinelli tightens the emotional screw not just to breaking point but beyond. His is an utterly compelling portrayal and even though we lack a visual element he puts across the torment and the tragedy of his character by sheer vocal presence. The encounters with Desdemona, especially the one in Act Three, are absolutely riveting.

And it must not be thought that Martinelli steals the show for Elizabeth Rethberg gives a wonderful performance as his doomed wife. She contributes as a magnificent equal to the Act Three duet, to which I’ve just referred. Here the singers really strike sparks off each other. Although the surface noise is disappointingly intrusive at the start of Act Four it can’t detract from the touching pathos with which Rethberg delivers the Willow Song. She then conveys Desdemona’s vulnerability even more powerfully in the Ave Maria. The final bedchamber confrontation with Otello is searingly intense, both singers pulling out all the stops.

The magnificent portrayals offered by these three great singers constitute the prime reason why all Verdians will want to acquire this set. However, I don’t believe there’s a weak link in the cast. The recording is not especially kind either to the chorus or to the orchestra but all seem to rise to the occasion with enormous commitment. The whole performance benefits hugely from the dynamic, dramatic and wholly idiomatic conducting of Ettore Panizza. The dramatic thrust of his conducting makes the performance a real event from start to finish.

There’s no libretto, though as usual Naxos provide a useful synopsis and informative notes. One can’t deny the sonic limitations of this pair of CDs but that can’t stand in the way of a recommendation for this is a magnificent, electrifying and incandescent performance, caught on the wing. In any case, I would think that most people buying this set will buy it to supplement a studio recording. This can’t be a first choice version of Otello but it’s a legendary performance that is essential listening for all lovers of Verdi’s music and for all who relish a head-on theatrical experience.

John Quinn

See also review by Göran Forsling



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