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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - opera in four acts (1887) [136:03]
Otello - Aleksanders Antonenko (tenor)
Desdemona - Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano)
Iago - Carlo Guelfi (baritone)
Emilia - Barbara di Castri (mezzo)
Cassio - Juan Francesco Gatell (tenor)
Roderigo - Michael Spyres (tenor)
Montano - Paolo Battaglia (bass)
Lodovico - Eric Owens (bass)
Chicago Children’s Choir
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, April 2011
CSO RESOUND CSOR 901 1301 [66:57 + 69:06]

CSO Resound captured the three performances on which this recording is based in 2011 and, astutely kept it under wraps until 2013 so that the release could coincide conveniently with the composer’s bicentenary celebrations. It was worth the wait and although the outcome is far from perfect the title role was so superbly done that the disc is worth seeking out for that alone. 

Aleksanders Antonenko is fast carving for himself a reputation as the Otello of our day - not least because so many contemporary star tenors don’t seem to want to touch the role. He recently garnered justifiably rave reviews for his performance of the role at London’s Royal Opera House. When I reviewed his 2008 Salzburg performance, also for Muti, I mentioned that he had the equipment for the part but wasn’t quite ready for it yet. Happily, his moment seems to have come. His voice has both deepened and widened, the darkness immediately apparent in his opening Esultate, but he uses this to add extra richness to the character and his intervention in the Act 1 brawl is every bit as thrilling. When the character’s decline sets in its speed is convincing: he sounds like a wounded beast in Ora e per sempre, then utterly bereft in Dio, mi potevi. He seems to have arrived in a different psychological place altogether by the time of the murder scene, and an extra element of delirium creeps into his high notes in a way that is compellingly brilliant. His admirable rendition of Nium mi tema runs the gamut of emotions from defiance to sorrow to, finally, utter deflation. I can’t think of anyone singing the role today who does so as compellingly and powerfully as does Antonenko. He has heroic power and Italianate phrasing that put him up there with many of the finest. It’s remarkable how much he has improved in the role in the three years between his 2008 debut (on the Salzburg DVD) and this performance. For him alone this performance is worth hearing.
Krassimira Stoyanova strikes the ear as rather too strident on her first entrance, but she mellows to give a very moving account of the love duet. No listener can believe that this Desdemona is a wilting wall-flower: this is a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own, closer, perhaps, to Shakespeare’s vision of the character, thus making the scale of her tragedy all the greater. There is a wonderful richness to her voice at the outset of the Act 3 duet and she brings wounded nobility to the Act 3 ensemble. I really liked her Willow Song too, though I can understand why some may think the voice too austere, not sympathetic enough to carry it off. Surely even they, however, will be convinced by the gentle vulnerability of the Ave Maria which rises to a final top note that is both peaceful and utterly secure.
If Antonenko’s voice has improved over the years, however, then I fear that Carlo Guelfi’s has gone the other way. Here the voice sounds more gravelly and distinctly less secure than I have ever heard him. I was prepared to forgive his Brindisi for fear that he had not warmed up properly, but the Credo turns into an inconsequential, blustery shout at times, lacking a secure centre; for all that he manages an impressive pianissimo at La morte e nulla. His abrasive tone damages the beauty of the quartet, and for the rest of the act he seems merely to grate up against Antonenko in a way that is most unappealing. Interestingly, he sings the final phrase of the dream (beginning Il rio destin ...) an octave lower than we are used to hearing. Why would he do that? Has Muti uncovered something in the original score - possibly, it happens in the Salzburg DVD too - or is he simply not up to performing it pianissimo at its accepted pitch? His gritty bark of an Iago isn’t something I’ll go back to with any enthusiasm, and I’m afraid that this deficiency prevents this set from attaining the super-league of Otello recordings. The lesser roles are all a bit anonymous. Lodovico and Montano scrape along the bottom - one might have expected better from Eric Owens - and neither Cassio nor Emilia have much about them to write home about.
Muti is on good form, though. The opening storm scene is exciting but disciplined, and Muti takes noticeably more time with it than he has done in the past, refusing to tear through it, but still building to a thunderous climax at the Dio, fulgor della bufera. That slower tempo pushes Antonenko to his limit in the opening Esultate, but that makes his triumphant singing of it even more thrilling. Muti isn’t above a few wizardy tricks that don’t always work - for example, he holds the chord that leads into the oath duet for an unconscionably long period and then races through the duet itself. The bass note that announces Otello’s entry in the final scene is exaggerated to almost comic effect but on the whole he is well behaved. One curiosity is that he opts for the alternative version of the big Act 3 ensemble, which Verdi made for the Paris performance of 1894. It has the advantage that all the asides, so important for the advancement of the plot, are much more clearly audible, but it lacks the great sweep of the original version and so I doubt that most listeners will come back to it for anything other than curiosity value. Interesting to have, nevertheless.
The set benefits from recorded sound of such exceptional clarity that I never missed the studied perfection of a studio. Each orchestral part, brilliantly played, comes to life brilliantly, and the singing of the CSO Chorus is outstanding, every bit the equal of any opera chorus on disc. Let’s not forget that this team has previous form in this opera in Solti’s farewell performances as music director when he did it with Pavarotti - his only recording of the role - and Te Kanawa, a much maligned performance that I’ve always found hugely enjoyable.
So while this set may not be perfect, it’s worth hearing for Antonenko and Stoyanova, and the budget price helps. For those who care about such things, I didn’t pick up any audience noise and there is no applause. Furthermore, you get the full libretto with English and French translations, which is pretty good value in a slimline case. I still love Domingo’s Paris recording the best when it comes to CDs, but finest of all remains Solti’s Covent Garden performance with Domingo, Te Kanawa and Leiferkus on an Opus Arte DVD. For me that’s the benchmark against which all others still need to be measured.
Simon Thompson