For someone growing up in the 1960s in the countryside of Sweden, far from any opera house, the only accessible way of seeing opera, as opposed to listening to it, was television. Luckily Swedish Television’s only channel at the time was quite generous to opera lovers. I remember seeing Le nozze di Figaro twice from the Salzburg Festival, a German Madama Butterfly (if I remember correctly with Anneliese Rothenberger), a German Rigoletto with the great singing-actor Ernst Gutstein, a Wozzeck with Walter Berry and several others including the famous Göran Gentele-Sixten Ehrling Un ballo in maschera. I have no recollection of seeing this Otello, more is the pity since I had come under the spell of Karajan’s Decca recording and really longed to see this opera. Now, 45 years later, I could muster little enthusiasm, considering the experience would involve a black and white TV film in mono sound and on top of that sung in German.
How wrong I was! The sound isn’t bad, nowhere near the old Decca but well defined and with acceptable dynamics. The quality of the pictures is very good and with good lighting, Otto Schenk and his camera crew, have succeeded in creating atmospheric scenes, almost in the manner of Ingmar Bergman. There’s a dark and threatening opening scene at the harbour with roaring winds and the people in horror. All the following scenes are evocative through the interplay of light and shade. Created in the studio there was no room for overviews, even the massed scenes are shown in fragments with a lot of individual roles for the members of the chorus. Light and shade, drama and repose succeed each other in a dramaturgical ebb and flow that sustains narrative tension throughout.
Argeo Quadri was for many years one of the most sought after Italian conductors. He is best known to record collectors for accompanying some of the greatest singers’ recital discs. Names like Birgit Nilsson, Mario Del Monaco, Tom Krause and Gwyneth Jones come to mind. He leads a taut performance of Otello with sensible tempos. It is hardly his fault that the music is cut off very brusquely at the end of acts. Whether it was his or the director’s choice to leave out the beautiful orchestral postlude to act I is difficult to know but every musician should in all likelihood grit his/her teeth at such a decision.
That the opera is sung in German - opera in the vernacular was still the order of the day in the 1960s - initially feels a bit strange, but one soon adjusts. I have listened to so many recordings from the 1920s and 1930s of excerpts from sundry operas, and Jeder Knabe is quite OK for the opening phrase of Otello’s final solo Niun mi tema. Leo Slezak, Martin Öhman and Lauritz Melchior - three superb Otellos during the inter-war years - have immortalized the aria using that wording.
Wolfgang Windgassen also belongs to their circle though from a later generation. A superb Wagnerian, with nineteen seasons at Bayreuth to his credit, his was not the super-sized voice of a Melchior but his innate musicality and expressive phrasing allowed him to become possibly the best Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried and Tristan of his generation. His Esultate! at his first entrance in Otello may not ring out as gloriously as that of Mario Del Monaco on the Karajan recording, but he has thwe necessary intensity and his singing at the opening of the love duet is beautiful. Otello is surely for a heroic singer but there is so much more to the role and Windgassen’s portrait of the moor shows all the facets of this complicated character, being manipulated by Iago until he breaks down and finally kills his beloved wife. The confrontations with Iago make for great music theatre and the final monologue is heartbreaking.
Iago is sung by the Canadian baritone Norman Mittelmann, a singer I do not remember encountering before. Born in 1932 he was just past 30 when this recording was made. Vocally he is well up to the requirements for this devil in disguise. His insinuations are delivered with ingratiating tone and his distorted features are truly frightening in the masterly Credo. Judging by his performance here it is a mystery that he wasn’t regularly heard on records during his heyday. The whole of act II is captivating from beginning to end.
Sena Jurinac is probably best remembered as one of the greatest Mozart sopranos during the post-war years, well documented on record. Her Desdemona is touching and vulnerable. Her tone, though not as lovely as in the 1950s when she was at the zenith of her career, matches her expressive looks.
The supporting cast is excellent and it was especially nice to see Adolf Dallapozza, who during the 1960s and 1970s was one of the finest lyric tenors. He was a good Alfred in Fledermaus and was Solti’s choice as David in his first Meistersinger. His Rodrigo is youthful and rather flamboyant whereas William Blankenship’s Cassio is a tragic victim of Iago’s scheming.
Those wanting a modern Otello in good sound and sung in Italian need not bother about this issue. Even so, I was fascinated by the production and first and foremost by the interplay between Windgassen and Mittelmann. For the historically inclined reader this is a real treat.