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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
Otello - opera in four acts (1887)
Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor) - Otello; Marina Poplavskaya (soprano) - Desdemona; Carlos Álvarez (baritone) - Iago; Barbara di Castri (mezzo) - Emilia; Stephen Costello (tenor) - Cassio; Antonello Ceron (tenor) - Roderigo; Simone Del Savio (bass) - Montano; Mikhail Petrenko (bass-baritone) - Lodovico
Salzburger Festspiele Kinderchor, Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Riccardo Muti
rec. Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival, 5-10 August 2008
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture format 16:9, 1080i
Region: ABC
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese
Reviewed in DTS HD MA 5.1
C MAJOR 701504 [143:00 + Bonus: 10:00]

This is the first disc I have seen from the C Major Tutto Verdi series that has not originated in an Italian opera house. Here we have a slightly aging performance from Salzburg 2008 (originally issued as a DVD on C Major). I mention the age because the picture is occasionally a bit fuzzy and the sound is uneven. Opera on Blu-ray has reached a high standard of technical reliability over the past year or so. The fact that this one is not quite so polished is thus more noticeable. The biggest technical problem with this one comes close to derailing the whole performance for me. The English subtitles are erratic throughout the entire opera. Sometimes they appear and sometimes they do not. The very worst part is during the complex scene in Act 2 between Desdemona, Otello, Iago and Emilia, starting from Desdemona's Se inconscia contro te. This is the scene in which the relationship between Iago and Emilia is thrown up against that of the main protagonists. The words are vital to full understanding, and here the subtitles almost disappear entirely. It is not impossible to maintain a clear translated thread, as is demonstrated in Muti's 2001 recording from La Scala with Domingo and Fritoli (review). TDK's DVD misses nothing in its subtitles.
 
As throughout the series, Unitel includes a useful bonus film, a summary of the plot illustrated from the performance, and a brief account of the background to composition and the early performances. The English narration is clearly spoken by Neil Adam Tibbetts who either knows little about opera or who was the victim of poor editing because the word recitatives is comically mispronounced - does no one check these matters?
 
Typically of Salzburg this performance is subjected to a spectacular staging in the Großes Festspielhaus. One of the lightning flashes in the opening storm is accompanied by a huge jagged split appearing across the stage. This is used for the duration of the opera, presumably a metaphor for the personality disorder suffered by Otello himself. This gash opens and closes at various key moments, sometimes lit from below with a hellish glare. Clever but a bit obvious and not untypical of directorial 'concepts' nowadays. In fairness this is not the only idea and many details are imaginative and will repay several viewings. The problem of the Act 1 storm is solved by a large video screen centre-stage which on-disc is used as background to the opening titles. Sadly for the drama of this scene the director decides on a largely static chorus and soloists. Whilst the Vienna Philharmonic under Muti play like demons in the pit, on the stage nearly everyone stands unmoving and apparently unmoved. There are no 'gestures of terror and supplication' as Boito requires. Even Otello's appearance is a static pose as if he entered at the wrong moment. The music meanwhile has him ascending the steps from the shore. I did like the fact that Cassio is characterised as a womaniser. The cavortings around him of three beautiful but very unmaidenly maidens suggest that he is exactly the 'foppish' character Iago despises so much. In contrast Rodrigo is merely a ruffian. The fight between Cassio and Montano that precipitates Otello's ire and Cassio's demotion seems an inevitable outcome of much drunken behaviour by almost everyone. Against this backdrop the figure of Desdemona, seen entering and leaving the quayside during all this, is all the more pure and angelic. When all the activity subsides and we have the contrasting lyrical love scene between Otello and Desdemona their 'un baccio' is rather chaste. Perhaps Marina Poplavskaya was put off by Aleksandrs Antonenko's copious sweating. He, and indeed Iago, seem to be operating in a tropical atmosphere on several occasions. The scenes between Iago and Cassio and then Iago and Otello in Act 2 are very dramatic, but the entry of the women and boys of the island is again staged without any apparent thought as to what they are going to do on stage. They just stand and sing, going through the motions of presentation to Desdemona with zero engagement. It defuses the drama. Then we reach the scene mentioned above where the erratic and/or absent subtitling does additional damage to one's understanding. The final scene of this wonderful act is very well sung but the continued intermittent subtitling and a rare lapse of pace by Muti left me wishing for Karajan, Vickers and Glossop on EMI (review).
 
The setting of Act 3 is spare and very dark but both Antonenko and Álvarez are on top form in this scene. One gains full advantage of video close-ups despite the sweat. Poplavskaya also shows how good a singer she is. With her rich and powerful voice she makes a worthy partner for Antonenko, though towards the very end of Act 3 he seems slightly strained. The video moves with unseemly haste to Act 4 where Desdemona has her big moment. I felt the action moved rather hesitantly to the tragic conclusion. Again the staging did not quite work. Thinking afterwards I began to wonder if the weakness in this new Otello is indeed Aleksandrs Antonenko himself. I could not believe in him as I can in Domingo and Vickers. Neither of them was clean shaven or as apparently young as him and perhaps he loses gravitas as a result. It is worth noting that during the applause only Poplavskaya and Álvarez earned extra applause, not Antonenko. I think I agree. I am less enthusiastic about this 2008 Otello than Muti's 2011 Chicago CSO Resound recording issued recently on SACD (review). Even that cannot erase Toscanini, Barbirolli or Karajan from one's mind, and, being sound only, none of those is afflicted with a director's concept or the subtitles problem.
 
Dave Billinge 

Previous review (DVD): Robert Farr



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