Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Tragic opera in four acts (1887)
Otello, a Moor, commander in chief of the Venetian fleet - Jon Vickers (tenor); Desdemona, his wife - Renata Scotto (soprano); Iago, an ensign - Cornell MacNeil (baritone); Emelia, Iago’s wife - Jean Kraft (mezzo); Cassio, a captain under Otello - Raymond Gibbs (tenor); Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman - Andrea Velis (tenor); Lodovico, Venetian ambassador - James Morris (bass-baritone)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
Original Director and Set design: Franco Zeffirelli
Costume design: Peter J Hall
Video Director: Kirk Browning
rec. 25 September 1978
LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1 surround Region free NTSC DVD. Colour.
Original tapes restored in an attempt to meet current technical standards
Subtitles and leaflet introduction in English
SONY CLASSICAL DVD 88697910129 [144:00]

Otello was Verdi’s first totally new operatic composition since Aida premiered in 1871. It was not that he had been idle. His Requiem for Manzoni had followed in 1874 and he travelled widely in Europe conducting his works. His friends among the Milan literati thought he had more operatic composition in him despite his being in his seventh decade. A number of them quietly plotted to tempt him, his knowledge and love of Shakespeare being paramount in their thoughts. With the aid of a dinner invitation from Verdi’s wife, who was in on the plot, his publisher, Ricordi, and the conductor Faccio, broached the subject with the great man. Boito’s name was mentioned as librettist. The next day Boito was brought to see Verdi and three days later he returned with a detailed scenario; quick work unless there had been prior manoeuvring!

Verdi encouraged Boito to convert his synopsis into verse with the words: it will always be good for you, for me, or for someone else; he would not commit himself to compose the work. Verdi was to prevaricate on The chocolate theme, as it was called, for some time. However, when the composer indicated that he was ready to revise Simon Boccanegra he enlisted Boito as librettist. The composer and his new librettist got on well and the foundations were laid that brought Otello to magnificent fruition at La Scala on 5 February 1887. It was Verdi’s 27th opera and his first wholly new work for the stage for eighteen years. Verdi was then seventy-four years of age and really thought that he had finished with operatic composition.

Verdi’s conception of Otello involved greater, and significantly different, orchestral complexity compared to Aida (1871) and Don Carlos (1867) its immediate operatic predecessors. It marked a major compositional departure from his previous aria, duet and chorus scene to a more fluently smooth transition from one event to the next. In his conception, Verdi was greatly aided by Boito’s taut libretto. It reduced Shakespeare’s “Othello” by six-sevenths yet lost none of its essence. Still fully in place is the tale of destruction of the erstwhile hero by the genie of jealousy aided by Iago’s machinations. Boito dispensed with Shakespeare’s Venice act and focused the whole of the action in Cyprus.

The success of any performance of Otello depends on the singing of the name part. It is unequalled in the Verdi canon in the vocal demands it makes on the tenor protagonist. Placido Domingo has dominated the role on stage for a generation. Before him it was Jon Vickers long remembered for his assumptions at the Metropolitan Opera since 1967. He recorded the role under Serafin in 1960 with Tito Gobbi as a formidable Iago (RCA). They were a duo I was privileged to see in the theatre. Vickers’ interpretation was central to the 1970 Salzburg Festival production by Karajan, alongside Freni and Glossop. This made it onto film with the voices lip-synchronised. Filmed in Munich and at the Salzburg, Dürer Studios, in August 1973, it has appeared on CD and DVD.

If just lacking the free ringing top to his voice of the audio recording of 1960, Vickers’ interpretation at Salzburg had a greater dramatic and vocal intensity. This surely derived from his long association with the role including earlier performances in New York. It was then, just over ten years after the tenor’s Met debut in the role, five after his Salzburg filmed recording and in Vickers’ fifty-second year. It was also only a year after the Met had launched its groundbreaking PBS series of Live from the Met, bringing the drama of live opera to television viewers. Not unexpectedly, the technical qualities of this recording do not bear comparison with the brilliance of the current HD broadcasts to cinemas across the world. It is however adequate – certainly sufficient to appreciate the glory of Zeffirelli’s staging which had been first seen in 1972. More importantly, it catches the singing of one of the greatest interpreters of the most demanding tenor role in the Italian operatic repertoire on a live stage rather than a film set.

The first question to answer is how does Vickers do in this his fifty-second year. He starts with a viscerally thrilling Esultate (CH.2). He is dominant as he sorts out the drunken goings-on between Cassio and Roderigo (CH.5). There’s superb expression in his singing in the love duet that concludes the act (CH. 7). By the time Otello’s jealousy has been aroused and Desdemona has riled him by pleading for Cassio, Vickers’ brief Ora e per sempre addio is frightening in its impact (CH.14). As Otello’s rage intensifies the sheer power of his calls for blood with the repeated Sangue, is fearsome in vocal power and acted realisation. One really feels that it would not be safe to meet this man at this moment (CH.17). He is able to continue this histrionic level throughout Act Three as Otello demands the handkerchief from Desdemona and as we learn of the arrival of the Ambassador. By Act Four his tone is a little dry, but he still manages a legato line and soft singing as he asks his wife if she has prayed before he strangles her (CH. 31). In Nium me tema and in his final act of stabbing himself his acting is first class and involving (CHs.32-33). Overall, Vickers’ assumption of the role of Otello is all encompassing in its reality and realisation. Every word, phrase and action is weighed and counted for individual and collective effect. Everything is delivered with seemingly natural expressive nuance.

In the circumstances of Vickers’ delivery of the title role, it would have been easy for the other principals to be overwhelmed. This is not so in the case of Scotto’s Desdemona. Her singing may not be as pure as that of Freni for the Karajan film but her performance comes near to matching Vickers in this her only series in the Zeffirelli staging. Her warm womanly tones and expression are welcome in the love duet (CH. 7), albeit her legato is not perfect. Her acting throughout creates a most moving and realistic foil to Otello’s overwhelming power. Her long-honed singing and stage skills are particularly evident in Act Four where her Willow Song (CH.28), on a wisp of breath in the reprise, is wonderful to hear as is the pathos conveyed in Desdemona’s farewell to Emilia. Scotto launches the Ave Maria (CH.29) with security as she caresses the bedspread, no altar-kneeling here as Otello enters, knife in hand.

Scotto’s realisation of her part is a match for Vickers. Regrettably, Cornell MacNeil is not. All in all his Iago is a bit of a dull dog. He manipulates the confrontations of Act One with something of the required cynicism but after his desiccated rendering of Iago’s Credo - that masterful addition to Shakespeare that is wholly by Boito - it is largely down-hill. Andrea Velis as Roderigo looks rather old as a suitor for even the wife of a no longer young Otello. Raymond Gibbs as Cassio is weakly sung and portrayed, not a criticism that can be levelled at the Emilia of Jean Kraft in her role’s few opportunities.

Levine’s evenly paced vibrant interpretation puts Karajan, with his variable tempi, to shame. The chorus of the Met sound suitably Italianate and commit themselves fully. The sound has a few moments of peak distortion and, as I have hinted, the picture is not a patch on today’s standards. That being said, it has come up remarkably well and with imaginative lighting there are few over-dark moments. For the rest we can appreciate the magnificent Zeffirelli set and Peter J. Hall’s sumptuous period costumes.

Robert J Farr

Vickers, Scotto and Levine overcome old technology in a truly memorable realisation of Verdi’s greatest dramatic work.