Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello Ė opera in four acts (1887)
Otello Ė Jon Vickers (tenor)
Desdemona Ė Renata Scotto (soprano)
Iago Ė Cornell MacNeil (baritone)
Cassio Ė Raymond Gibbs (tenor)
Emilia Ė Jean Kraft (mezzo)
Roderigo Ė Andrea Velis (tenor)
Lodovico Ė James Morris (baritone)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine
Stage production by Franco Zeffirelli
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, 25 September 1978
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 4:3; Sound LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.1
SONY DVD 88697 910129 [144:00]

Parts of this DVD performance are very good, but the overall effect is rather lacklustre. Itís 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 Vickersí 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. Vickersí 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 Scottoís 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 Zeffirelliís production; she seldom seems truly vulnerable or injured. MacNeilís 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.

Zeffirelliís 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 Otelloís 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 Verdiís great masterpiece and, for me, it diminishes rather than enhances the overall effect. Levineís 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. Hallís unnecessarily sparkly costumes. Most damagingly, the sound is boxy and restrictive so that, very unusually in my experience of opera DVDs, itís actually better to listen to this one on 2.0 stereo rather than in DTS 5.1, and even then itís 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 Soltiís 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 Serafinís 1961 RCA set or you can see him on Karajanís much maligned DG film - donít listen to those who tell you the lip-sync doesnít work: I didnít 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.

Simon Thompson

Okay, but nothing more.