Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello (highlights)
rec. 1914-1961
Full track-list at end of review
MAGDALEN METCD 8019 [77:17]
This collection is a very fine and highly effective way of marking the Verdi bicentenary. Magdalen have created a disc of highlights from Otello by picking the best bits from a range of recordings: all the way from 1914 to 1961. Along the way they also showcase an honour roll of legendary performers. For dedicated Verdians it’s a compact treat.
The disc peaks early with an astounding account of the love duet. Ramon Vinay - the finest Otello of them all? - is on fantastic form in the love duet. The burnished darkness of his tone points up the Moor's heroic nature and makes his fall all the more tragic. Opposite him Eleanor Steber sounds as pure as the driven snow but with never a hint of being a doormat. Her Desdemona is a living, breathing woman, and this is as rounded a portrayal of the role as you're ever likely to hear.
The opening storm is given in Karajan's 1960 Vienna recording. The sound of the orchestra and chorus is still fantastic, and the scene is crowned by a thrilling entry from Mario del Monaco, though John Culshaw's effects, including a dubbed-on organ note, whistling wind and artificially distant crowd noises, now sound very dated. They also turn to Karajan for the big ensemble that ends Act 3 which, again, reveals the first-rate quality of its sound - listen to the clarity of Iago's asides, in particular. That said, Desdemona was never a role that suited Tebaldi particularly well and she seems under pressure here. Del Monaco sounds great as he falls into his delirium, though, and Aldo Protti's malevolence is all the more powerful for being restrained.

Lawrence Tibbett is an equally restrained Iago from the Met in 1939, but you occasionally get a hint of the demonic side of the character in his upper register. I reacted against his Era la notte, but then I realised that was because he was describing a dream. He changed his vocal colour entirely when he came "out of character" and got back into the present, so it is, in fact, a masterly piece of vocal acting.  Finer still in the role is Tito Gobbi. The opening of the Credo is absolutely thrilling and his vision of death as "nulla" sends a chill down the spine because it is so indifferent. The voice in 1950 was at its very freshest, and he is on even finer form here than he was for the stereo recording with Serafin. We get an extract from that Serafin recording in the Act 2 quartet. It is notable chiefly for the extremely moving Desdemona of Leonie Rysanek. The "living stereo" recording places the voices very well in the stereoscape. I've never been a huge fan of Jon Vickers' Otello, but he is undoubtedly finer here than he was in Karajan's - in my view, flawed - 1973 account for EMI. He manages to sound genuinely vulnerable, wounded even, in the quartet and he subsequently launches into a thrilling account of Ora e per sempre. Serafin's pacing of the whole episode is masterly too and the Rome players have probably never done anything better on disc.
Caruso and Ruffo's oath duet is an indispensable historical document, even if it sounds inescapably raw. It’s particularly notable for the way Caruso manages to have a dark ring to his voice - sometimes it even sounds like two baritones, a remarkable thought - while still managing some thrilling top notes. Every bit as indispensable is Toscanini's 1947 recording, one of the most (justifiably) famous opera recordings of them all. Vinay sounds fantastic on this too, but most collectors will already know that from firsthand experience of this recording. If Nelli's Desdemona is not a match for Steber's then she still manages to bring out the feeling of the character's wounded modesty. Speaking of which, what a treat to have Rosa Ponselle's aristocratic Willow Song; not particularly well acted, perhaps, but who cares when you have a voice like this? A shame that it omits the second verse, though. Elizabeth Rethberg's 1940 Ave Maria drew premature applause from the Met audience, but to me she sounded a little on the shrill side until her final prayers for "the hour of our death", which are assisted by marvellously sensitive string sound, shaped skilfully by Ettore Panizza.
Elsewhere, Giovanni Zenatello makes an extraordinary sound in Dio, mi potevi,  a true snarl in places, giving as thrilling an account as you will hear of Otello's lowest ebb. I've never heard anyone better convey the sense of a wounded animal driven to absolute desperation. I found Giovanni Martinelli a little clinical in his account of Niun mi tema, but the vocal tone is undeniably ripe. He searches - not especially successfully - for some sensitivity in the recall of the kiss, but his guttural death splutterings are a somewhat unfortunate way to end the disc!
As for the re-masterings, they are very successful indeed. In every case the sound is fresh, clear and untroublesome, and sometimes even finer than that. Nor is there ever a problem with tape hiss, which has been cleaned up admirably. The booklet notes give a synopsis, a rundown of the Otello discography and brief singer biographies, though I would have liked to have known more about their reasons for choosing certain singers for certain moments. Despite this, the disc is much more than a curiosity: it's a lovingly curated compendium of some of this work's finest ever interpreters, evidently compiled and worked on by a team of people who love the opera deeply and care about its performance history. It's obviously not for beginners, but it is perfect for those who love the work and know it well. It has certainly earned a special place on my shelf, and I will be returning to it again and again.  

Simon Thompson 

See also review by Robert Farr

Full tracklist 

1. Una vela... Esultate! [6:31]
Mario del Monaco (Otello), Aldo Protti (Iago), Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, 1961
2. Inaffia l’ugola [3:47]
Lawrence Tibbett (Iago), New York Met, Wilfred Pelletier, 1939
3. Gia nella notte densa
Ramon Vinay (Otello), Eleanor Steber (Desdemona), New York Met, Fausto Cleva, 1951
4. Vanne... Credo in un dio crudel [4:22]
Tito Gobbi (Iago), Philharmonia, James Robertson, London 1950
5. D’un uom che geme sotto il tuo disegno... Ora e per sempre [8:19]
Leonie Rysanek (Desdemona), Jon Vickers (Otello), Tito Gobbi (Iago), Miriam Pirazzini (Emilia), Rome Opera, Tulio Serafin, 1960
6. Era la notte [2:57]
Lawrence Tibbett (Iago), New York Met, Wilfred Pelletier, 1939
7. O Mostruosa colpa... Di pel ciel [4:42]
Enrico Caruso (Otello), Titta Ruffo (Iago), Unnamed orchestra & conductor, New York 1914
8. Dio ti giocondi, o sposo [9:04]
Herva Nelli (Desdemona), Ramon Vinay (Otello), NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, New York 1947
9. Dio mi potevi scagliar [3:37]
Giovanni Zenatello (Otello), Orchestra conducted by Bruno Reibold, Camden, New Jersey, 1928
10. A terra, e piangi [9:37]
Mario del Monaco (Otello), Renata Tebaldi (Desdemona), Aldo Protti (Iago), Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, 1961
11. Willow Song [4:21]
Rosa Ponselle (Desdemona), Orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon, Camden, New Jersey 1924
12. Ave Maria [5:30]
Elisabeth Rethberg (Desdemona), New York Met, Ettore Panizza, 1940
13. Niun mi tema [5:25]
Giovanni Martinelli (Otello), New York Met, 1941

I will be returning to it again and again.

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