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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello – a tragic opera in four acts (1887)
Simon O'Neill (tenor) - Otello
Gerald Finley (baritone) - Jago
Allan Clayton (tenor) - Cassio
Ben Johnson (tenor) - Roderigo
Alexander Tsymbalyuk (bass) - Lodovico
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano) – Desdemona;
Matthew Rose (bass) – Montano;
Eufemia Tufano (soprano) - Emilia
Lukas Jakobski (bass) - A Herald
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
James Mallinson - producer
rec. live, Barbican Centre, London, 1-6 December 2009. High density DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording
Notes and synopsis in English/en français/auf Deutsch (includes complete libretto in Italian and English)
LSO LIVE LSO0700 [64:27 + 66:54]

Experience Classicsonline

I was in the Barbican Centre for the second of the two live concert performances of Otello with this cast, conductor and the LSO in December 2009. The booklet gives the recording dates for this CD release significantly as ‘1-6 December 2009’. That means it probably has been spliced together from tapings of rehearsals, as well as, the two public concerts. Nevertheless on listening to the recording I have had no reason to change my views of this Otello and base many of the following comments on what I previously wrote.

It is wonderful to hear this score once again conducted by Sir Colin Davis some thirty years after he was involved in one of my earliest operatic memories when I saw Jon Vickers singing Otello at Covent Garden in 1980. Colin Davis was 82 when he recorded this yet he plunges into Verdi’s opening storm with the enthusiasm of someone decades younger. The conductor is not revered as much for Verdi as he is for many other composers and this well-prepared performance - rich in orchestral detail – seemed in the concert hall just a little too genteel and lacking some red-hot Italian passion. This is not as noticeable on CD and his Otello has more electrifying energy and drama. This is still not reflected in the contributions of the London Symphony Chorus who, to their credit, delivered the great opening numbers with magnificent force. Yet the importance of the chorus in Otello ranks amongst Verdi's finest achievements; the composer drew on a lifetime of lyric theatre experience in using a collective choral energy to create dramatic excitement. The London Symphony Chorus clearly has vocal talent but are too obviously ‘well-schooled’. For instance, the ‘Fuoco di gioia!’ bonfire chorus and many other of the ensembles lacked the bite and pungency of an experienced opera house chorus. I also missed the children’s voices needed to pay homage to Desdemona in Act II.

The sheer numbers in the chorus and on the platform produced a volume of sound which, at times, overwhelmed the limited acoustic capacity of the Barbican Hall. This is reflected on the recording when at moments of raw Verdian power I was inclined to turn the volume down a little - though that may be more a criticism of the system I was listening to this Otello on, rather than the CDs themselves. The finest musical moments remain when the tumult dies down and we are left with the starry sky and moonshine of the Act I love duet. Nearer the end of the opera, the painful resignation of Desdemona’s bedchamber and Otello’s menacing approach in the growling basses share this memorable eminence.

Torsten Kerl who was to have sung Otello withdrew at the eleventh hour. To his credit New Zealander Simon O’Neill agreed to sing the part although never having sung it in public before. He is in excellent voice and retains a tireless, stentorian intensity throughout. There is also no lack of lovely Italianate musical refinement to savour in a heroic voice which has a pitch-perfect squillo-like top. This brilliance perhaps does not extent completely down throughout his voice as yet but this is just quibbling.

This was a significant role debut and Simon O’Neill has the possibility to reclaim Otello from the darker-hued tenors we are more used to hearing these days and take us back to an earlier ‘Golden Age’. It is only to be expected that, at this stage in O’Neill’s career, the Moor’s flashes of palpable temper seem mere tetchiness. However, he sings a deeply affecting ‘Niun mi tema’ that perfectly punctuates his considerable achievement. Listening to the CD I was more aware that he doesn’t quite have the necessary control yet over some of the long vocal lines and there was some choppy phrasing. This is only to be expected and given the circumstances it is an auspicious role debut. I understand he had studied the role with Plácido Domingo and though he seems to have no plans to sing it on stage for several years he should do great credit to his mentor when he does.

For Anne Schwanewilms, who sings Desdemona, the German repertoire would appear to be her more natural environment although I can now recognize more Italian words than I did hearing her live. Throughout she sings with poise and a commanding dignity. Often her contributions have an unassuming silvery beauty, yet under pressure her tone spreads somewhat. Nevertheless the Act IV ‘Willow Song’ is an extremely poignant mixture of regret, sadness and courage.

There is further unusual casting with Gerald Finley as a charismatic Jago; he is not primarily known as a Verdi baritone. Bringing all his Lieder experience to the role this performance is a highlight of the set. He has the wonderful dramatic capacity to sour his voice with malice and without sacrificing strength bring out all the evil beauty and horror of his character. On the concert platform his approach to his part seems rather too ‘laid-back’ but listening to it again - when all that matters is the voice – he is quite exceptional.

In supporting roles young lightweight tenors Allan Clayton (Cassio) and Ben Johnson (Roderigo) and dark basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Lodovico), Matthew Rose (Montano) and Lukas Jakobski (Herald), as well as, Eufemia Tufano’s mezzo as Emilia, try to make the best of their fleeting opportunities.

A budget-priced new recording of any opera is to be welcomed these days but when it is Otello it becomes a very significant release indeed. At a recommended retail price of £16.99 it is a bargain. It documents strongly the first time Simon O’Neill sang the role of Otello and the fire and brimstone conducting of the real ‘Lion of Venice’, the ageless Sir Colin Davis.

Jim Pritchard








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