This handsomely packaged set from Chicago's own label includes notes, a synopsis, a description of the version used of the Act 3 Finale, plus soloists’ biographies, all in English, French and German. The parallel translation of the libretto is in the sung language of Italian, plus French and English; no sign of a German translation. The recording is magnificent in both surround and stereo but the former benefits from the occasional and appropriate use of the rear channels for certain effects and overall spaciousness. The brass sound is absolutely wonderful, gaining much from the wide dynamic range. The chorus is balanced very naturally and only sometimes seems a little detached from the action. The soloists are as clear as one could wish and in some of the more dramatic passages the hall can be heard to reverberate with their voices. All most impressive.
The singing in Act 1 is excellent from the dramatic opening with the ship surging through the storm into port, to the quiet close with Otello and Desdemona expressing their mutual love. It sounds much like a staged performance such is the involvement of all singers in their roles. Only the noise of a stage is missing. Muti has clearly lost none of his touch as a great Verdi conductor. Act 2 grips from the first notes. The exchange between the duped Cassio and the scheming Iago holds one's attention because of Muti's steady underlying pulse. It is not as fast as some conductors but sounds exactly right. After a tense and absorbing scene between Iago and Otello when the latter's jealousy is heated to boiling point the sound of exotic instruments from the rear channels, announcing the presence of Desdemona and her retinue is a little surprising, but is justified in Boito's libretto. I should note that both Antonenko as Otello and Guelfi as Iago have rather wide vibratos at times, especially when under pressure as in this act. Most singers have difficulties with this opera on record so this is not to devalue their contribution. The herald announces the arrival of the Venetian ambassador at the start of Act 3 singing from the back of the hall: again, this is a little unexpected but quite acceptable. Otello's condemnation of Desdemona is a bit lacking in edge, just too beautiful for such awful events. This is a characteristic of the whole performance, which does grandeur better than intensity. Act 4, Desdemona's Willow Song and her prayer, then the final fatal confrontation between all the protagonists, can bring tears to the eyes - Barbirolli, noted below - but here one was perhaps more impressed than moved.
Listening to this new recording triggered a small Otello-fest for me involving Karajan 2 (the Berlin version on EMI), Barbirolli and then Toscanini's 1947 recording on RCA, from which I draw a few generalisations. Muti's performance is top class and no one has a better recording. If total involvement is sought then Barbirolli is both exciting and moving despite the rather individual sound of McCracken and Fischer Dieskau as Otello and Iago. These two singers really get inside the roles for me in a way slightly lacking from Muti's pair. However, many critics have damned Barbirolli for all sorts of sins, especially for choosing these two singers. McCracken, it must be admitted, sounds unhinged at times. Maybe this is not your thing but it is a perfectly valid view of Otello
. Karajan 2 has Vickers and Freni as Otello and Desdemona, the former a bit strained, the latter simply gorgeous to hear, but both very, very dramatic and involved. Karajan also has the Berlin Philharmonic. Then there is Toscanini. Despite the awful 1947 sound and being in mono, has to be the Otello
in most respects, except hi-fi. It is so gripping that you emerge exhausted from hearing it. There are many complete recordings I have not mentioned which have all sorts of other great qualities, but what emerged for me was how great this opera is. Does Muti's new performance contribute to the canon of fine Otello
s? Is most certainly does. Should you buy it? Yes, but buy at least one other too - Toscanini's if you don't own it already.
Previous review (CD): Simon Thompson