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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Tragic opera in four acts.
Otello, a Moor, commander in chief of the Venetian fleet - Jon Vickers (tenor); Desdemona, his wife - Mirella Freni (soprano); Iago, an ensign - Peter Glossop (baritone); Emelia, Iago’s wife - Stefania Malagú (mezzo); Cassio, a captain under Otello - Aldo Bottion (tenor); Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman - Michel Senéchal (tenor); Lodovico, Venetian ambassador - José Van Dam (bass-baritone)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Chorus of the Deutschen Oper, Berlin/Herbert Von Karajan
rec. 30 April, 1-2, 22-27 May 1973. Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 456450 2 [65.01 + 71.11 + CD-ROM]

Experience Classicsonline
After the composition of The Requiem in 1874, Verdi entered his most arid compositional period. Although aged sixty-one this wasn’t because he was 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 for his lack of operatic composition since Aida eight years before to which he responded that the account is settled. But in her salon the literati of Milan would meet, including Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, the conductor Faccio and Boito, the latter a composer, writer and sublime opera librettist. 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 Verdi’s wife Giuseppina, broached the subject with the great man, suggesting Boito as librettist. The next day Boito was brought to see Verdi and three days later returned with a detailed scenario; quick work unless there had been prior plotting!

Whilst 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 sorted his ideas 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 his Simon Boccanegra of 1857 he enlisted Boito as librettist. The composer and his 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 was his first wholly new work for the stage for eighteen years. Verdi was seventy-four years of age and thought he had finished with operatic composition.

Shakespeare was a poet revered by Verdi and his conception of Otello involved greater and significantly different orchestral complexity compared to Aida (1871) and Don Carlos (1867), 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 Othello by six-sevenths but without losing its essence of 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. It is unequalled in the Verdi canon in the vocal demands it makes on the eponymous tenor. In reality the role is beyond some of the very greatest of tenors. Neither Bergonzi nor Pavarotti sang it in staged productions. In the latter half of the twentieth century a handful of big-voiced tenors could do it some measure of justice including Ramon Vinay, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers and, particularly, Placido Domingo in the last quarter of the century. At the time of this recording Vickers was in his late forties. He recorded the role under Serafin in 1960 with Tito Gobbi a formidable Iago (RCA), a duo I was privileged to see in the theatre. In that recording, and the 1964 performances I saw, the top of Vickers’ voice was freer, more open and ringing than here. What he added during the Salzburg performances associated with this recording is a vocal intensity that is manifest from his declaration of love for Desdemona, through Otello’s mental collapse and his strangling of Desdemona and suicide. That intensity had a cost with occasional loss of focus even as Otello trumpets out Esultate on his arrival (CD 1 tr.2). Nonetheless in this period before Domingo undertook the role no one could better Vickers in portraying Otello’s destruction by Iago, particularly with his vocal acting in the last act as Otello accuses, strangles and ultimately realises his mistake (CD 2 trs 14-17).

In any sound-only recording, much depends on the vocal portrayal of Iago. In del Monaco’s stereo recording with Renata Tebaldi a fine Desdemona and Karajan a virile and vibrant conductor, the whole is let down by Aldo Protti’s characterless Iago (Decca). This performance features the Yorkshire baritone Peter Glossop in one of the few of his many Verdi assumptions to make it onto disc. This despite his captivating Italian audiences all the way from the bear pit of Parma to seven seasons at La Scala and encompassing all the great Verdi baritone roles. In his autobiography (The Story of a Yorkshire Baritone, Guidon Publishing, 2004) Glossop recounts (p.116) how Karajan noticed his eyes as Tonio, in Pagliacci, looked around corners surreptitiously and said that’s who I want for my Iago. Karajan was all-powerful at Salzburg and Glossop was cast for the part. As can be seen on the film derived from that Otello production (see review) Glossop lives up to that in his acted portrayal. It was Karajan’s habit to record the cast for his Salzburg productions and use the recording during rehearsals and, sometimes, for later issue. I do not know how much of the soundtrack of this recording was used in the film; certainly at least some of it was used for dubbing. What is evident with Glossop’s vocal interpretation is that the vocal flaws are more obvious than on the film with periodic loss of focus and evenness of tone more evident without the visual distraction. That being said, the evil of Iago in his credo, is added by Boito and has no part in Shakespeare. That element here is awesome in its intent and intensity (CD 1 tr.12).

Visual appeal and acting are also a vital part of Mirella Freni’s assumption. She has none of Tebaldi’s vocal opulence despite which she conveys Desdemona’s sweetness of character, fragile nature and ultimate failure to understand Otello’s deterioration as she constantly pleads Cassio’s case. Her portrayal of the loving and adoring wife in the love duet is particularly fine with steady legato and elegant phrasing allied to good vocal characterisation (CD 1 trs. 9-10). Both she and Vickers hold a steady line despite some languorous tempi from Karajan at this point. In the great act 4 scene with the Willow Song and following prayer (CD 2 trs. 12-13), the film is undeniably superior. Freni lives the part in her eyes, face, body as well as singing.

Already I have hinted at the virtue of seeing as well as hearing this opera above all others, along with Falstaff, and perhaps Aida. Certainly the film associated with this recording is preferable. On audio, Domingo’s first recording (RCA) of the role of Otello in 1978, with Milnes as Iago and Scotto as Desdemona, is formidable competition. He recorded a later version for DG with Leiferkus as a chilling semi parlando Iago. This duo appears on DVD together with Te Kanawa as Desdemona from Covent Garden in 1992 with Solti dynamic but sympathetic on the rostrum. My colleague Tony Haywood reviewed this DVD (see review) and also that of Domingo at La Scala (see review). I personally like Domingo’s assumption at the Met under Levine with Renee Fleming an appealing Desdemona although James Morris is hardly an ideal Verdi baritone as Iago. Levine at the Met is more true to Verdi than Karajan. The Met’s digital sound is warmer and rounder too and also benefits from a better figure du part in the role of Cassio, where Aldo Bottion for Karajan doesn’t look particularly soldierly. José Van Dam, like his Met counterpart, Anisimov, is imposing in stature and vocal quality as Lodovico.

Karajan in this performance dabbles with Boito’s outstanding and thought-through libretto, and makes several cuts, albeit small. But ego was often the bane of the great and as in his superb audio La Boheme (Decca), Karajan pulls Verdi’s well thought out tempi about, often destroying the dramatic effect that the great composer, a consummate man of the theatre, conceived.

The third CD described as a Bonus Disc contains synopsis and libretto with translation. The bonus means you have the choice of printing both out if you have the facilities. On this basis I would prefer the Naxos policy of giving a track-related synopsis and the URL of the libretto on the Naxos site, albeit in the original language only.

Robert J Farr


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