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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - tragic opera in four acts (1887)
Otello, a Moor, commander in chief of the Venetian fleet - José Cura (ten); Desdemona, his wife - Krassimara Stoyanova (sop); Iago, an ensign - Lado Ataneli (bar); Emelia, Iago’s wife - Ketevan Kemoklidze (mezzo); Cassio, a captain under Otello - Vittorio Grigolo (ten); Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman - Vincenz Esteve Madrid (ten); Lodovico, Venetian ambassador - Giorgio Giuseppini (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Gran Teatro del Liceu/Antonio Rós-Marba
rec. live, Gran Teatro del Liceu 21, 24 February 2006.
Stage Director - Willy Decker
Set and costume design - John Macfarlane
Television Director - Angel Luis Ramirez
Picture format: 16/9 Anamorphic
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS surround
Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian
OPUS ARTE DVD Video OA 0963 D [2 DVDs: 151:00] 


After the composition of the Requiem in 1874, Verdi entered his most arid compositional period to date. It wasn’t because he was altogether idling his time. He travelled widely in Europe conducting his work, particularly the Requiem. These trips took him to London, Paris, Cologne and even Austrian Vienna. Everywhere he was feted as the leading opera composer of the day and national honours were bestowed on him. Early in 1879, and for his own amusement, he composed a Pater Noster for unaccompanied five-part chorus and an Ave Maria for solo soprano and string orchestra. His long-time friend the Countess Maffei chided him about his lack of operatic composition since Aida eight years before to which he responded that the account is settled. But in her salon in which the literati of Milan would meet, including Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, the conductor Faccio and Boito, composer, writer and sublime opera librettist there were developments. Somewhere along the line a plot was hatched to tempt Verdi to write an opera based on a Shakespearean play. When Verdi visited Milan to conduct a charity performance of his Requiem Ricordi and Faccio, with the help of a dinner invitation engineered by Giuseppina, broached the subject with the great man, suggesting Boito as librettist. The next day Boito was brought to see Verdi. Three days later he returned with a detailed scenario; quick work unless there had been prior plotting!

Verdi encouraged Boito to convert his synopsis into verse with the words it will always be good for you, for me, or for someone else. He would not commit himself to compose the work. Verdi was to prevaricate on the ‘chocolate theme’, as it was called, for some time. When Ricordi became impatient Giuseppina cautioned, behind the composer’s back, that whilst he liked Boito’s verses he had not got his ideas clear and without clear ideas he will decide now, or at any rate later, never to compose again … leave things, at least for the moment, just as they are, wrapping the Moor in as great a silence as is possible. Ricordi took the advice and when Verdi indicated he was ready to revise Simon Boccanegra he enlisted Boito as librettist. Composer and new librettist got on well and the foundations were laid that brought Otello to magnificent fruition at La Scala on 5 February 1887. It was Verdi’s 27th opera and his first wholly new work for the stage for eighteen years. He was seventy-four years of age and really thought that he had finished with operatic composition.

Shakespeare was a poet revered by Verdi. His conception of Otello involved greater and significantly different orchestral complexity compared to Aida and Don Carlos, its immediate operatic predecessors. It marks a major compositional movement from him. As Budden (Verdi. Master Musicians Series, Dent, 1985) puts it, the composer conceived it from the start in terms of whole acts that proceed from start to finish without interruption. The drama moves by smooth transition from one event to the next. In his conception Verdi was greatly aided by Boito’s taut libretto that reduced Shakespeare’s Otello by six-sevenths. This compression was made without losing the essence of the play: the destruction of the erstwhile hero by the genie of jealousy aided by the evil machinations of Iago. Boito dispensed with Shakespeare’s Venice act and focused the whole of the action in Cyprus.

To quote Budden again, the title role in ‘Otello’ lies well beyond the scope of the average operatic tenor. In reality the role is beyond some of the greatest of tenors. Bergonzi had no difficulty with either Radames in Aida or Manrico in Il Trovatore, but he only tried Otello once, in a concert performance after his retirement from the stage and his voice cracked in the great act 1 outburst. Pavarotti sang the role at the behest of his record company in a series of concert performances in America; an audio recording followed and illustrates the great care with which he approaches Otello’s outbursts. Otello is not the barnstorming role that the likes of Del Monaco tended to make of him. It is overlaid by many nuances, taking Otello from the hero and lover of act 1 through his disintegration in act 3 and murder of his wife in act 4. For the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century the role on stage, and particularly on audio and video recordings, was dominated by Placido Domingo. He came to represent the many facets of Otello’s character. With his retirement from the role many have taken the view that José Cura, the Otello on this recording, was his natural successor. Since leaving Argentina in 1991 he has debuted at all the best addresses in the big Italian tenor roles essaying his first Otello in 1997 at the young age of 34.

Cura considers himself something of a polymath. Singer, composer, conductor and author are all skills he claims and has practised. At the Festival Hall, London, in 1999 he conducted himself singing; many critics thought he did himself no favours. It was an experiment he tried on record with a similar outcome. In his portrayal of Otello in this Willy Decker production the sets and costume design are by John Macfarlane. This version is caught on its travels at the Barcelona Liceu in 2006. Cura shows that he still has much to learn about Otello’s character. He is not helped in his interpretation by Decker’s typically sparse sets that make his Salzburg clock-dominated La Traviata seem indecently overdressed. I use the plural ‘sets’ rather loosely. In a shoebox stage when much depends on lighting effects the only prop is a large cross. At Otello’s entrance the chorus sing strongly, moving as a group in typical Decker directorial manner. This is how they function throughout the work. The frailty of Cura’s Otello is evident in the tender lyrical passages of the love duet (Disc 1 Chs. 6-7) when he has difficulty with the pitch at the start and in holding the legato line. Later on he tends to over-sing from time to time but nonetheless manages to convey Otello’s descent. Perhaps he is at his best in act 3 where a mid-stage mirrored wall is used for Otello to look into. It perhaps represents a last opportunity for meaningful introspection (Disc 2 Ch. 1 et seq). Otello secretes himself behind this mirrored wall as Cassio talks of Bianca believing the conversation is about Desdemona. Meanwhile the cross has had a hard time of it having been flung down by Otello with a great clatter after his assault on Iago, when it is used as a weapon (Disc 1 Chs. 12-13). It is also flung down to break into two in the oath duet Si, per ciel marmareo giuro! when Otello’s destruction is irretrievable. In these dramatic moments Cura’s big-boned voice is heard at its best. For me, though, his interpretation is, as yet, too barnstorming.

As Iago Lado Ataneli sings strongly but leaves me frustrated. His Credo (Disc 1 Ch. 9) is vocally even and strong. However, even holding and addressing his evil intent to the cross, he fails to convey, vocally and in his acting, that malevolent intent in the way that Peter Glossop can. In fact you can experience Glossop’s Iago in a 1972 film of the opera. In that case Georges Wakhevitch’s Salzburg sets and designs provide a backdrop for Jon Vickers’s commanding Otello – Karajan conducts. In the present performance Krassimara Stoyanova’s singing as Desdemona is a tower of strength. Not a brilliant actress she does, however, make Desdemona a real life wife - totally confused, unbelieving and uncomprehending at the evolution of events. Her Willow Song is touching in its vocal simplicity and the launch of the Ave Maria, sung before ‘the’ cross, placed against a wall, is fearless and full-toned with a wide variety of colour (Disc 2 Chs. 12-13). At the start of the act, which moves without a break from act 3, just as the first two acts were presented, has Otello prostrate with his hand still twitching from the convulsion with which he collapsed at the end of act 3. Desdemona’s instruction to Amelia Lay out my bed (Disc 2 Ch. 11) seems incongruous when there is no bed in sight. Willy Decker’s Violetta died on a clock, Desdemona’s bed is ‘the’ cross. That is where Otello strangles her before the tragic histrionics of his suicide and after the revelation of Iago’s evil as he sings Non mi tema (let no one fear me) and crawls towards the dying Desdemona pleading for one more kiss. (Disc 2 Ch. 16).

Otello on DVD is a fairly crowded market with Domingo featuring on no fewer than four recordings. My favourite performance of his is in the Elijah Moshinsky production from the Met conducted by Levine. There his Desdemona is the young Renée Fleming (DG 073 029-9 GH). James Morris as Iago is a dull dog as is Nucci when Domingo is partnered by Frittoli at La Scala under Muti.

With greater experience and stage direction, and perhaps props, Cura will surely, in the coming years, give better interpretations of this great tenorial challenge. But with uncompressed sound and no audience interruptions this issue has some virtues.

Robert J Farr


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