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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Tragic opera in four acts (1887)
Otello, a Moor, commander in chief of the Venetian fleet - Gregory Kunde (tenor); Desdemona, his wife - Carmela Remigio (soprano); Iago, an ensign - Lucio Gallo (baritone); Emelia, Iago's wife - Elisabetta Martorana (mezzo); Cassio, a captain under Otello - Francesco Mastorana (tenor); Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman - Antonella Ceron (tenor); Lodovico, Venetian ambassador - Mattia Denti (bass-baritone)
Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice/Myung-Whun Chung
rec. Courtyard of the Ducal Palace, Venice, 10 July 2013
Stage Director: Francesco Micheli
Set designer: Edoardo Sanchi
Costume designer: Silvia Aymonino
Lighting Designer: Fabio Barretin
Visual Designer: Sergio Metalli
Video format HD 1080i. Aspect 16:9. Sound Format, PCM 1. Stereo. DTS-HD MA 5.1
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR Blu-ray 716604 [149:00]

As the booklet introduction points out, La Fenice, Venice's premier theatre had a special place in Verdi's heart. It was to this theatre that he first ventured outside Milan after his first four operas, all premiered at La Scala. In Venice he had a significant success with Ernani (1844) and later with Attila (1846) and above all Rigoletto (1851). It was not all rosy; there were initial failures for La Traviata (1853) and Simon Boccanegra (1857). Both these became significant successes later. Germane to Otello, it was the revision of Boccanegra that brought Verdi and Boito, librettist par excellence, together. As indicated in the appendix to this review, if that meeting and collaboration had never happened it is doubtful whether Verdi's last two great operas, both based on Shakespeare, would have been written.

This outdoor event was staged in the spectacular venue of the Courtyard of Venice's Ducal Palace. The Palace is adjacent to St Mark's Square with its magnificent architecture seen in the introduction to this film (CH.1). This open-air staging, with the night stars adding to the lighting projections of the production, followed a celebratory stage production earlier in the year to mark the bicentenary of Verdi's birth. It paralleled a production of Wagner's epic Tristan staged for the same reason.

Korean Myung-Whun Chung conducted both bicentenary celebratory works. His strong vibrant rending of Verdi's score, from memory, is a vital contribution to the impact of the performance from the opening to the dying chords. The opening storm is orchestrally magnificent in its aural impact along with the chorus. It gives first sight of Otello descending the great steps to greet the crowd dressed for the storm as they express concern as to their hero's safety (CH.2). Visual projections of a turbulent sea, add realism to the bobbing of hand-held model boats as the storm rages.

Projections play a vital part in the creation of atmosphere throughout, particularly in the great love duet as the stars shine and climb and with the seven sister Pleiades constellation lighting the sky (CH.9). Add period costume, with Gregory Kunde fully blacked-up in the title role, rarely seen nowadays with political correctness all the vogue, allowing the whites of his eyes to tell their own story. Otello's opening Esultate (CH.3) sets the standard for what is to come for this singer taking on this most demanding of tenor roles. I had been surprised to see Kunde cast as Verdi's Otello. He has been better known for the last twenty or so years as one of the Pesaro Festival's favourites in the Rossini bel canto repertoire with Rossini's Otello well established in his repertoire. As an acted interpretation, his overall impact is excellent and he nearly convinces me that he has what it takes to fill the vacancy left by Domingo's move to the baritenor repertoire. Nearly, but not quite. He lacks that ultimate tonal bite, vocal depth and sheer strength evidenced by some vocal strain at the very top of the voice. Nonetheless I would pay money to hear him in the role.

Much of the story concerns the evil Iago, who sows seeds of jealousy in Otello's mind leading to his killing his wife. I was disappointed by Lucio Gallo's acted and sung interpretation. He matches his Otello vocally in the great duet scene of act two (CHs.16-20), but for me his rather suave portrayal does not convey the man's evil malevolence. This is reflected in a benign credo (CH.11).

Carmela Remigio as Otello's lover, Desdemona, whom he abuses and then murders, matches her lover in the acting stakes. She portrays her strength of purpose and vulnerability as she shares her feelings and history with Emilia in the last act. Her vocal characterization is good, but the purity of her legato less so as heard in the last act Willow Song and Prayer (CHs.31-32). In this latter respect she is not in the Kiri Te Kanawa or Renee Fleming class.

A disappointment is in the physical stage in the Palace courtyard. It seems to be made up of trestle tables, or perhaps the walkways used when St Mark's Square is flooded on spring tides. There is no attempt at creating a bedroom for the last act. Desdemona goes to sleep on one such trestle and is strangled by Otello whilst there. Idiosyncratically, she is seen to get up and walk away before returning and proffering her hand to Otello as he pleads for one last kiss.

The architecture of the location is magnificent as are the visual effects, the Lion of Venice being prominent. This is a little anomalous as far as Verdi's opera in concerned as Boito removed the whole of the Venice act in his adaptation of Shakespeare. In both play and opera, Otello is still the conquering hero who saves Venice to where he is recalled as Cassio, in the ultimate irony, is appointed to take over the fortress he must leave.

Appendix: The genesis of Verdi's Otello, its conception and realisation.
Otello was premiered at La Scala on 5 February 1887. It was Verdi's first totally new operatic composition since Aida, premiered in 1871. It had a long genesis, becoming known to a privileged few as "The chocolate project". It is not that Verdi had been idle. His Requiem for Manzoni had followed Aida in 1874 and he travelled widely in Europe conducting his own works. However, friends among the Milan literati, meeting at the salon of Verdi's friend, the Countess Maffei, thought he had more operatic composition within him. This was despite his being in his seventh decade and although he protested to her that "the account was settled". 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 with Boito's name being 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 liked it, but would not commit himself. 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". However, he would not commit himself to compose the work. Verdi was to vacillate on the project for some time.

Time passed and Verdi went to Paris to present his Aida in French. Back in Italy he composed two new works, a Pater Noster and Ave Maria, which were presented in Milan, conducted by Faccio. To Ricordi's frustration, Otello seemed to be on the back-burner. Strepponi warned Ricordi to be patient; he listened and suggested to the composer another revision. This time of Simon Boccanegra of 1857 (Venice), knowing Verdi felt the work did not deserve its failure and neglect. That Boito had agreed to be the librettist of the revision tipped the scales for Verdi. Verdi and Boito got on well, the latter adding the completely new Council Chamber scene, the dramatic highlight of the revision. The new version was premiered to acclaim at La Scala on 24 March 1881. Verdi also revised his five act Don Carlos (French) into the shorter Don Carlo (Italian) premiered at La Scala in 1884.

Sparked by the success of the two revisions Verdi, albeit slowly, worked on "The Chocolate Project" its conclusion eventually coming to magnificent fruition at La Scala on 5 February 1887. It was his first wholly new operatic work for the stage for eighteen years. He was seventy-four years of age and really did think his book of operatic composition was closed with this, his twenty-seventh title. Verdi's conception of Otello involved greater, and significantly different, orchestral complexity compared to Aida and Don Carlos. It marks a major compositional movement from him from his previous aria, duet and chorus scenes, to a more fluent smooth transition from one event in the story to the next. In this conception Verdi was greatly aided by Boito's taut libretto that reduced Shakespeare's Othello by six-sevenths, but without losing its essence of the destruction of the erstwhile hero by the genie of jealousy aided by the machinations of Iago. Boito dispensed with Shakespeare's Venice act and focused the whole of the action in Cyprus.

Robert J Farr