Parts of this DVD performance are very good, but the overall
effect is rather lacklustre. It’s one of the early Met telecasts
and, for those who remember him, we even get the interval announcements
of veteran presenter Peter Allen. Most people will be interested
in this DVD because it captures a staged performance from Jon
Vickers, one of the greatest heroic tenors of the 20th
century. The most remarkable things about Vickers’ voice is
its size, which is still a marvel to behold in this performance.
He can fill the vast auditorium in the big moments of rage and
his two majestic entrances in Act 1. However, the voice was
way past its best by the time he recorded this and the moments
of lyricism and vulnerability, just as important in this role,
are all but absent. Vickers’ voice always had a remarkably distinctive
timbre, but there is little beauty here and he often sounds
desiccated or raw, nowhere more damagingly than in the love
duet. Niun mi tema also suffers for the same reasons.
Renata Scotto’s Desdemona is better but rather self-conscious.
She sings beautifully in the final act, but everything about
her stage performance is larger than life, perhaps because of
the immensity of Zeffirelli’s production; she seldom seems truly
vulnerable or injured. MacNeil’s Iago is rather anonymous in
the first act, but warms up brilliantly for the Credo,
revelling in the devilry of his character, and orchestrating
the action of Act 3 with a demonic snarl on his features, but
not in his voice.
Zeffirelli’s production is so gargantuan as to be grotesque.
In the background of Act 1 we see ships bobbing on the tossed
waves, and a full scale galleon appears on stage in preparation
for Otello’s Esultate! Acts 2 and 3 take place against
the backdrop of hulking medieval castle walls, dwarfing the
action and removing any intimacy. As Desdemona sings the Ave
Maria in the final act, the bed beside which she kneels
is so enormous that she can barely reach the pillows! This is
far too monumental an approach to Verdi’s great masterpiece
and, for me, it diminishes rather than enhances the overall
effect. Levine’s direction is solid and the orchestra play well
for him, but the technical aspects of this DVD get in the way
of full enjoyment. The picture is grainy and limited and the
cameras cannot cope with the dazzling light reflected by Peter
J. Hall’s unnecessarily sparkly costumes. Most damagingly, the
sound is boxy and restrictive so that, very unusually in my
experience of opera DVDs, it’s actually better to listen to
this one on 2.0 stereo rather than in DTS 5.1, and even then
it’s nothing special.
Die-hard fans of Vickers or Scotto may decide to have a look
at this DVD, but for any lovers of the opera there are far better
alternatives out there, most obviously Solti’s fantastic Covent
Garden performance on Opus Arte, featuring Domingo and Te Kanawa.
If you insist on Jon Vickers then you can hear him to best effect
on Serafin’s 1961 RCA set or you can see him on Karajan’s much
maligned DG film - don’t listen to those who tell you the lip-sync
doesn’t work: I didn’t find it off-putting and I enjoyed the
film very much. Levine and Scotto are much better on another
RCA recording from 1978 featuring Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.
This Met DVD is okay, but nothing more.