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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Otello (sung in English).
Charles Craig (tenor) Otello; Rosalind Plowright (soprano) Desdemona; Neil Howlett (baritone) Iago; Bonaventura Bottone (tenor) Cassio; Stuart Kale (tenor) Rodrigo; Shelagh Squires (mezzo) Emilia; Sean Rea (bass) Lodovico; Malcolm Rivers (baritone) Montano; Gordon Taylor (baritone) Herald; Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Mark Elder.
Recorded at performances in the London Coliseum, January 6th-28th, 1983. [DDD]
CHANDOS OPERA IN ENGLISH CHAN3068 [138.06] [CC]


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Chandos’s efforts to reintroduce recordings from the EMI archives of performances of opera in English can only be applauded (this Otello was originally on HMV SLS 1436063). Of course, the major and supreme item in this series has to be the Goodall ‘Ring’, but there is much to celebrate in Mark Elder’s Otello, not least the resplendent Rosalind Plowright (who takes the role of Desdemona).

Andrew Porter’s excellent translation is used here, and as always from this source it is sensitive and natural. For a performance to convince, though, the hand on the teller is of supreme importance, and all credit must go to Mark Elder, who ensures that a secure and cogent dramatic thread runs through the whole experience. From the opening chord (which itself speaks volumes about the recording: clear and upfront) the dynamism of the reading is established, while the choral contributions vividly evoke a live performance at the Coliseum. Later, the sometimes almost Mozartian transparency of texture displays an intimate knowledge of the score. Elder’s pacing of Acts 3 and 4, in particular, is faultless.

Rosalind Plowright sings with an amazing balance of beauty of tone and musicianship. Her portrayal of a broken woman in Act 3 Scene 8 is as successful as it is touching. The real ensemble work of this scene, a positive trait which characterises the entire performance, concurrently exemplifies the real strength of regular singers at the same opera house. Technically, Plowright could hardly be bettered (and I measure her against Desdemonas in any language). She is superb in Act I’s Love Duet, conveying a real sense of longing in her recollections

Neil Howlett as Iago joins Plowright as the other vocal reason for purchasing this set. Iago’s ‘Credo’ is as clear a statement of his twisted philosophies as can be found, and this is a highlight of Howlett’s reading of the part. Iago is indeed a rewarding part and if the casting is not carefully considered, the danger is that Iago will put his Otello in the shade. And that is, to an extent, what happens here. Charles Craig’s reading of the cruelly taxing title role is the major weak link here. When one compares, for example, Otello’s initial cry of ‘Esultate!’ (here ‘O rejoice now’) to Domingo’s almost super-human entry for Chung (DG 439 805-2) the difference, in microcosm, becomes clear. Here is Otello, fresh from his victory, preternaturally swelled with confidence. Craig is merely an ENO principal (albeit a good one) taking the part: Domingo is Otello, imposing, awe-inspiring. Perhaps the comparison is a little harsh, but it serves to highlight the down side of Craig’s reading.

It would not do to suggest he is a disaster: it is just that in comparison to his immediate ENO colleagues (particularly Plowright) he can disappoint. He still, however, manages to convey fury and jealousy in Act 1 Scene 5 as Iago stokes the fires of doubt and he interacts well with Desdemona in Act 3 Scene 1 (which centres on the significance of the all-important handkerchief).

Of the smaller roles, even Gordon Traynor’s Herald stands out as he brings word that the Cypriot ambassadors have been sighted. Stuart Kale’s excellent Rodrigo is truly conspiratorial with Iago in Act 1.

Theatrically, everything gels in the final act, from Elder’s elucidation of Verdi’s extraordinary scoring to Plowright’s rising to Verdi’s operatic challenges. Plowright gives a rapt and intense Ave Maria and the high strings play as if inspired by her achievement. The third scene, which follows on immediately, is notable for the orchestra’s ability to paint in sound. Over the years, the English National Opera Orchestra has always struck me as London’s equivalent to the Hallé Orchestra: inspired by a good conductor, they can play like gods; put a third-rate conductor in from of them, they play like a local youth orchestra. Their excellence in this Otello is a tribute to the faultless musicianship of Mark Elder.

Having heard this set, I would not willingly be without it. Certainly, it complements the dynamic Chung/Domingo on DG mentioned above, and Leinsdorf's excellent account (with Vickers as Otello and Leonie Rysanek as Desdemona on RCA Living Stereo 09026 63180-2). If you haven’t guessed already, this set comes as highly recommended.

 

Colin Clarke

 


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