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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Tragic opera in four acts. Libretto by Arrigo Boito based on Shakespeare’s play.
Otello, a Moor, commander in chief of the Venetian fleet, Jon Vickers (ten); Desdemona, his wife, Mirella Freni (sop); Iago, an ensign, Peter Glossop (bar); Emelia, Iago’s wife, Stefania Malagú (mezzo); Cassio, a captain under Otello. Aldo Bottion (ten); Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman, Michel Senéchal (ten); Lodovico, Venetian ambassador, José Van Dam (bas-bar);
Chorus of the Deutschen Oper, Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert Von Karajan
Filmed in Munich and Salzburg, Durer Studios, August 1973
Sound Recording, Berlin Philharmonie, December 1972
Set design and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch
Director and Artistic Supervisor: Herbert Von Karajan
Presented in PCM Stereo/5.1 DTS Surround Sound. NTSC/Colour/4:3
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4040 GH [140:00]

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This is the second of the Unitel opera films to come my way. In the first, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (LINK) I never felt involved in the performance. In complete contrast, right from the opening, with its dramatic storm scene and boat tossed on the sea, I was drawn into the drama. Of course, with film effects the boiling seas are utterly realistic in a way the Met staging by Elijah Moshinsky (1995 production on DG DVD 073 092-9) cannot hope to be. But it is more than the realism of the storm that drew me. It is the handling of the crowd, waiting and praying, that draws first the eye and then the self into the unfolding sequences of Otello’s arrival, Esultate (Ch. 3). Then come Iago’s machinations with Roderigo (Ch. 4). Vickers flings out the words with a near-vocal abandon that is viscerally exciting whilst Domingo, for Levine in the Met recording, is more controlled but equally thrilling. When it comes to the portrayal of Iago the vocal comparisons are all in favour of Peter Glossop on this Unitel film. Then at the height of his powers the British baritone had a true Verdi voice in colour, legato and weight. His portrayal of the slimy Iago grows ever more evil and awe-inspiring as the opera progresses. You can track his development from the time of Iago’s plotting to get Cassio drunk (Chs. 6-8), via his malevolent Credo (Ch. 12), his manipulation of Desdemona’s handkerchief (Ch. 16), to exulting over the collapsed Otello and spurning him with his foot (Ch. 29). It is a consummate histrionic and vocal portrayal and a great strength to this performance. Well as James Morris acts on the Met recording, his voice is just not that of a Verdi baritone.

The success of any performance of Otello depends on the singing of the name part. So far as the vocal demands it makes on the protagonist are concerned it is unequalled in the Verdi canon. At the time of this film Jon Vickers was in his late forties. He recorded the role under Serafin in 1960 with Tito Gobbi as a formidable Iago (RCA), a duo I was privileged to see in the theatre. In that performance, and in the recording, the top of his voice was freer, more open and ringing than here. What he added during the Salzburg performances that preceded this recording, and which is well caught here, is a vocal intensity. This is manifest from his declaration of love for Desdemona (Ch. 10), through Otello’s mental collapse, to his strangling of Desdemona (Chs. 35-36) and his own suicide (Ch. 37). The cameras, with an ideal blend of close-ups, profiles and middle-distance shots, magnificently handle Otello’s regal and stately appearance in the early scenes of the opera, through his mental deterioration and to his death. Many camera shots are in an upward direction giving the impression of a taller man than I remember in the theatre, but adding to his stately grandeur and the impact of his physical and mental collapse. They trace him as he moves around his palace. In the final scene, as his shadow appears at the matrimonial bedroom to the chords of his stealthy approach, the effect is mesmerising. These shots all take full advantage of the sets that are extensive and palatial in both senses of the word. The sets in the Met performance are opulent and realistic. They are a credit to the designer, but they cannot match the realism of those on this film.

Realism is portrayed in the body language, vocal beauty and nuance of Mirella Freni’s Desdemona. By the time of this film she was well versed in the role from stage performances. Her portrayal of the loving and adoring wife in the love duet is particularly fine with steady legato and elegant phrasing allied to her appealing acting and warm and natural body language (Ch. 10). Both she and Vickers hold a steady line despite some languorous tempi from Karajan at this point. Freni’s acting is wholly natural and this can be seen is as she naively pleads Cassio’s cause against Otello’s mounting anger (Ch. 16). Here, as in the love duet, Renée Fleming for Levine is rather tentative, both vocally and in her body language towards Otello. It was her first essay at the role and she cannot, at those points in particular, match Freni’s greater understanding. In the great act 4 scene with Desdemona’s singing of the Willow Song and following prayer, Fleming is more comfortable vocally and histrionically. Freni doesn’t merely portray Desdemona in that last scene, she lives the part in her eyes, face, body and singing. Of particular note is the manner both sopranos manage the third salce of each reprise on a thread of breath while sustaining the legato line (Ch. 32). Freni’s violent launching of her farewell to Emilia is the more convincing of the two, as is her Ave Maria knelt, as normal, at her personal altar (Ch. 33). In this final scene the filming of the Met staging often has Desdemona’s face in shadow. Both conductors build the tension in this final act in particular with the Met’s staging of Iago’s escape being better handled.

Levine at the Met is more true to Verdi than Karajan who, as in his superb audio La Boheme (Decca), produces an overwhelming totality despite occasional vagaries of tempi. The sound is vivid and well balanced with no obvious discontinuities in the dubbing so that the cast look as though they are singing the words as well as acting the role. The Met’s digital sound is warmer and rounder and also benefits from a better ‘figure du part’ in the role of Cassio, where Aldio Bottion for Karajan doesn’t look particularly soldierly. José Van Dam, like his Met counterpart, is imposing in stature and vocally as Lodovico.

This film has few limitations as a total package of singing, acting, conducting, staging and sets. The camera work is discreet and enhances the music and the drama. As a film of an opera it is amongst the finest realisations I have seen and enjoyed. If you prefer the filming of a staged production then the realistic opulent sets and costumes of the Met production have much to commend them. Twenty years into his portrayal, Domingo is a formidable Otello, but the other principals are not his equal although Renée Fleming will portray a more relaxed Desdemona than she does in this her first effort. The trio of principals in the Unitel film, all well used to their roles from the Salzburg staging, and working with Karajan and his orchestral forces, are hard to beat in this most vividly dramatic of Verdi’s operas.

Robert J Farr

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