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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - lyric drama in four acts (1887)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito (from Shakespeare)
Otello - Ramón Vinay
Desdemona - Herva Nelli
Iago - Giuseppe Valdengo
Cassio - Virginio Assandri
Emilia - Nan Merriman
Roderigo - Leslie Chabay
Lodovico - Nicola Moscona
Montàno - Arthur Newman
NBC Symphony Orchestra and Choruses/Arturo Toscanini
rec. Acts I -II broadcast: 6 December 1947; Acts III-IV broadcast: 13 December 1947
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111320-21 [75:17 + 75:04]

Experience Classicsonline

Toscanini’s famous 1947 performance of Verdi’s penultimate opera has long been accorded the status of a gramophone classic. Toscanini, played in the first performance of Otello at La Scala in 1887 and here some sixty(!) years later his conducting of the work was astounding in its fire and drive. Originally spread over two evenings, the performance was subsequently issued on LP minus the studio announcements; what we have here are remasterings of the original lacquers of the complete studio performances, including the announcer’s introduction and narration. This selfsame studio broadcast - as opposed to the “tidied-up” commercial release - also appeared on Guild a couple of years back. Guild utilised the original studio masters rather than subsequent RCA editions which attempted to superimpose artificial reverberation to compensate for the dry studio acoustic. The sound on these Naxos CDs is singularly clear and bright, with an amazing dynamic range for its time. Given the notoriously dry acoustics of many of Toscanini’s studio performances, there is a surprising amount of depth and perspective in many of the large ensembles. The inclusion of the announcer’s comments may be a mixed blessing to some: on the one hand they help to recreate the feel of the original broadcast, on the other hand many listeners may feel that they interrupt the progress of the music. Easily remedied by programming them out.

Ramón Vinay, here captured at the outset of his career went on to become one of the world’s reigning exponents of the taxing title role before the appearance of the trumpet-toned but unsubtle Mario del Monaco in the 1950s. Vinay’s baritonal voice lent extra weight to this and subsequent heldentenor excursions. He also sang Tristan, Siegmund and other roles at Bayreuth and memorably undertook the role of Otello for Furtwängler in Salzburg in 1951. His is a big, rather ungainly voice, but what dramatic involvement! Toscanini himself said of the singer “He is a complete artist, magnificent and unsurpassed in roles which require power and violence. At the present time no other artist comes near Vinay’s interpretation of Otello.” The old Record Guide was a bit sniffy about his performance, and it’s true that in recent years Placido Domingo has created a more human, rounded portrayal of the Moor. But Domingo has had the benefit of over thirty years experience of the role which Vinay at this stage in his career did not; his remains a remarkably imaginative performance. 

Herva Nelli’s Desdemona has also received some lukewarm responses over the years. Hers is a pure, “white” sort of voice, not lacking in power for some of the bigger ensembles but overall giving a rather uninvolved impression, and perhaps lacking just the last degree of imagination. She rises splendidly to her Act IV scenes, however, and both the Willow Song and Ave Maria are affectingly sung. The studio audience here and elsewhere is remarkably quiet – they knew how to behave in those days! 

Valdengo sings a characterful Iago; not as nuanced or as commanding as Gobbi, for instance, but a fine performance nonetheless. His Credo is magnificently sung, if rather generalised in its portrayal of evil. Other singers have delved more deeply into the psychological aspects of the character. 

When all is said and done it is Toscanini’s, or rather Verdi’s, show. Listen to how, in the opening scenes, Toscanini is careful to bring out the rhythmic energy of the music, allowing us to hear orchestral figurations that are frequently overwhelmed by a welter of sound. Then he can fine down his forces to a mere whisper for the Act I duet or the Act IV scenes, but at the same time never losing the sense of forward momentum that characterises his performance. Acts 2 and 3, with Iago’s plotting coming to its tragic fruition, are gripping in their cumulative power. The spectacle of Desdemona’s humiliation and Otello’s collapse against the very public background of the big Act 3 ensembles are made to contrast with the personal grief and tragedy of Desdemona’s murder in Act 4 and Otello’s eventual discovery – too late – that he has been Iago’s pawn. A truly great performance and one that does full justice to Verdi’s masterpiece. A synopsis is included, but no texts or translations.

Ewan McCormick



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