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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - opera in four acts (1887)
Otello - Ramón Vinay (tenor)
Desdemona - Dragica (Carla) Martinis (soprano)
Iago - Paul Schöffler (baritone)
Cassio - Anton Dermota (tenor)
Emilia - Sieglinde Wagner (mezzi)
Rodrigo - August Jaresch (tenor)
Lodovico - Josef Greindl (bass)
Herald - Franz Bierenbach (bass)
Montano - Georg Monthy (bass)
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, Altes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 7 August 1951.mono
ORFEO C880132I [72:23 + 77:01]

I came to this recording with high expectations and a good deal of excitement. After all, it’s Furtwangler’s legendary Salzburg Otello, the maestro’s only recording of an Italian opera. The most German of conductors meeting the most Italian of composers; surely a recipe for something exciting and endlessly interesting. At heart, if it’s historic and we’re still listening to it then it must be good, right?
In the event, though, I came away from it with little more than a shrug because more often than not the performance struck me as just plain ordinary. In fact, if I hadn’t known it was Furtwängler on the podium then I wouldn’t have given the conducting much time of day at all. There are moments when it is exciting and interesting to have him there. The most striking thing about his vision is the slow, expansive pall that he casts over the score. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, and he is a skilled enough conductor to know when to tighten and when to release the tension so that you don’t end up listening to a funeral for two and a half hours. Only occasionally, though, did I feel that this was used to serve a suitable dramatic purpose. The opening storm is one example, which broods with volcanic gloom, or the Oath Duet, which carries with it an air of almost Wagnerian fatalism. In most other cases, though, neither the pacing nor the dramatic shaping struck me as worth writing home about, and I certainly wouldn’t have chosen his Act 3 ensemble or his Willow Song and Ave Maria over the likes of, say, Chung, Levine or Solti.
The singers are all very good but not that remarkable. Schöffler’s Iago, in particular, made no impression on me at all, barring a fittingly demonic credo. Martinis’ Desdemona began in a shrill, unappealing manner, but she developed a much more intense portrayal for the duet at the start of Act 3, and she was very beautiful in Act 4, with a beautiful end to the Ave Maria. Vinay is predictably magnificent, but I didn’t think his approach married that well to Furtwängler’s: in the opening Esultate, for example, the conductor seemed to be hurrying him along. Vinay is such a great artist that he adjusts to this, and both conductor and tenor are at their best in Dio, mi potevi, which feels like a real plumbing of the depths, but you’ll hear his Otello better elsewhere.
The other problem is the sound which, despite Orfeo’s best attempts to clean it up, is pretty poor at times, especially the first act which sounds lumpy and unclear … though maybe I just tuned into it more as I listened to the later acts. A problem which is undoubtedly most pronounced in the first act, though, is that when a character moves away from the front of the stage they are all but inaudible, and that’s not something the engineers can fix.
So, really, to my ears at any rate, this recording poses no danger to what has always been regarded as the finest of all the “historic” Otellos and that is Toscanini’s 1947 performance from New York - available in umpteen transfers, but the best I have heard is the one from Pristine Audio. It has Vinay on better form, it is in much better sound, and it has a conductor with genuinely interesting things to say. Maybe I’m missing something, but I suspect that this Orfeo recording is for die-hard Furtwänglerites only.
Simon Thompson