Verdi: Otello
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Otello (1887) [143:00]
Otello – Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor); Desdemona – Marina Poplavskaya (soprano); Iago – Carlos Álvarez (baritone); Cassio – Stephen Costello (tenor); Emilia – Barbara di Castri (soprano); Stephen Langridge (Production); Konzertvereinigung; Wiener Staatsopernchor; Salzburger Festspiele Kinderchor
Vienna Philharmonic/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, Salzburg Festival 2008

Bonus: Talking Otello [20:00]
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DD 5.1 Surround
UNITEL 701408 [163:0]

This production was unveiled to great fanfares in 2008. Salzburg’s previous Otello had been Karajan’s 1970 production starring Jon Vickers and Mirella Freni, a production which helped yield an under-rated audio recording and a film which, in my view, is still worth a look and is a lot less silly than a lot of critics have suggested. Salzburg entrusted the new production to a conductor who could be every bit as all-encompassing as Karajan. Riccardo Muti chose a cast of relative newcomers for his production, both Antonenko and Poplavskaya making their debuts in the lead roles. The results are mixed but, while there is more good than bad, a serious weakness rules it out of the top flight.

Stephen Langridge’s production will suffice but it really has nothing to say. The stage is fairly bare except for a raised platform which cracks and breaks as the opera progresses, like Otello’s mental state. A huge crack in the stage underlines the point. While the set is fairly abstract the costumes (inspired by Veronese, we are told) are solidly period affairs and, for the most part, look very beautiful, though they are rather incongruous in their abstract surroundings. The crowd scenes are disappointingly static, however, with very little going on, and there is an entirely unnecessary sub-plot concerning a captured Turkish boy who is being Christianised, perhaps a mirror of Otello’s experience. The chorus stand entirely still during the Fire Chorus, while a trio of whores cavort with the slave boy, an effect which I found distracting rather than enlightening. Most seriously, Langridge seems to have little clue about how to build up the tension for the great dramatic climaxes, which pass by almost unobserved. During the oath (which Muti takes too slowly to be exciting) the two men cut their hands to create the effect of swearing blood brotherhood but it is, again, slow-moving and almost entirely static. More serious is the build-up to the great Act 3 ensemble which has no dramatic pacing whatsoever – Otello doesn’t even strike Desdemona. To me it was a series of missed opportunities which did nothing to shed any light on Verdi’s great drama. The unimaginative camera direction, far too reliant on facial close-ups, makes matters even worse.

Muti’s conducting makes up for this a little, though he is – perhaps predictably – most interested in the moments of violence and excitement so that the love duet feels a little flat. Act 4 builds to the crescendo of violence in the murder but he is able to find the tenderness in the prelude. The singing is mostly very good. Álvarez is utterly convincing as Iago, devilish in both action and voice. He finds malice in his otherwise heroic timbre so that, while utterly wicked, he also comes across as genteel and charming on the outside, entirely appropriate for the smiling evil which Iago encompasses. In one of the few effective touches to the production he acts as a Master of Ceremonies for the unfolding events, pulling the curtain to talk confidentially to the audience during the Credo, and elsewhere spying on Otello’s two duets with Desdemona. Marina Poplavskaya makes a most effective debut as Desdemona. When she sings her first notes in the love duet you are immediately struck by the size of the voice, but she pares it down for the quartet in Act 2 and, beautifully, for the Willow Song and Ave Maria which are both most moving with genuine pianissimo singing in places. She is also the finest actor on stage, though Langridge’s dearth of ideas doesn’t help her. We are also treated to a marvellously effective Cassio from Stephen Costello, likeable and sympathetic while acting with a light, clear tenor voice.

So what of the Moor himself? Here, unfortunately, we have the most variable performance in the most important character. The power of Antonenko’s voice is immediately apparent from the success of the opening Esultate, and there are other moments of magnificent strength. Likewise he can sing gently when he needs to, as in the final passages of the opera. All of the notes are there and he doesn’t struggle with the tessitura. However, I couldn’t shake off a feeling that he just wasn’t comfortable in the role. While the notes were present they were not always clear and vocal strength seemed to slip away from him as the evening progressed. The moments which should really ring, such as the oath or the abuse of Desdemona in Act 3, seemed to lack weight. More seriously even than this, he is still a beginner when it comes to phrasing this role. More than once he had to gasp for a quick breath in places which broke up the vocal line, and the great monologues carried little dramatic weight. Dio, mi potevi and Nium mi tema need to carry far greater authority than they do here. It is by no means a bad portrayal of the character, but I can’t help but feel that he has come to Otello too early and that, given some careful shepherding and rigorous training, he will one day develop into a fine interpreter. Let’s hope this performance wasn’t too much too soon.

The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is of the highest quality imaginable, but a DVD with a less than excellent Otello cannot be fully recommended. The 20-minute long Making of extra film has little of consequence or value.

For my money the two finest DVDs of Otello both star Placido Domingo and are both directed by Elijah Moshinsky. The Met DVD groans under the weight of its own splendour but features a lovely Desdemona in Renee Fleming. Even finer, however, is the recording of one of the very greatest nights in the history of the Royal Opera House when Domingo played the Moor with Kiri te Kanawa and Sergei Leiferkus, conducted by Solti. The production is quietly sumptuous while the singing and the acting still has the power to knock my socks off, more than 20 years after I saw it broadcast on the BBC as a boy. Recently re-released on Opus Arte, though only in 2.0 stereo, this is still the Otello to go for.

Simon Thompson

The Solti ROH DVD is still the Otello to go for.… see Full Review