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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello [131:57]
Otello – Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Desdemona – Raffaella Angeletti (soprano)
Iago – Sebastian Catana (baritone)
Emilia – Marifé Nogales (mezzo)
Cassio – Luis Dámaso (tenor)
Roderigo – Vicenç Esteve (tenor)
Montano – Michael Dries (bass)
Lodovico – Kristjan Mõisnik (bass)
Orfeón Donostiarra, Los “Peques” del León de Oro
Oviedo Filarmonía/Friedrich Haider
rec. Auditorio Príncipe Felipe, Oviedo, Spain, 22 August–8 September 2007, 18– 26 August 2009
NAXOS 8.660357-58 [64:32 + 67:25]

I was attracted to this set by seeing Robert Dean Smith’s name in the title role. In one sense it’s a natural role for him, sitting in the heroic tenor register in which he has become so successful; but in another it’s importantly different to the German world of Strauss and Wagner with which he is so particularly associated. The ringing heroism to the voice is still exciting here, especially at the top, and this really comes to the fore during the confrontation with Iago in the second act. The end of Ora e per sempre is thrilling, as is the Oath Duet, and he rings over the climaxes of the ensemble in Act Three, too. Most of the time, however, Dean Smith sounds like a bit of a tourist in the role. The Italianate nature of the role seems to escape him almost entirely, despite his comfort with the tessitura, and he tends to deliver the role in a rather staccato style that mitigates against the lyricism of the part, for all its spinto nature. His Otello sounds rather pained, and not just because of Iago’s villainy. The bottom of the role is also a bit of a struggle for him, demonstrated most painfully in the opening phrases of the love duet and in Dio ti potevi. So, for all his virtues, his assault on the Moor has to go down as a heroic failure.

If RDS is ultimately disappointing, however, then elsewhere there is a lot to enjoy. Raffaella Angeletti is a marvellous Desdemona. Her voice is all cream and honey, radiating the character’s beauty, and she is wonderful in both the love duet and, equally importantly, the big confrontation of Act Three. Her Willow Song is opulently beautiful, while the Ave Maria is much more thoughtful and shot through with regret. Sebastian Catana is also a very successful Iago. He sings the part with a voice that would curdle milk, full of malice and cunning but never unmusical and tapping into the character’s deceptive beauty. The lesser roles are all perfectly fine, too, though Luis Dámaso is a rather baritonal Cassio who is sometimes hard to distinguish from Iago.

Friedrich Haider conducts excitingly, pacing everything just about right, though the Act 3 ensemble is too fast, and the orchestra follow him well. The amateur choruses are very obviously Spanish, though, and their accents are so pronounced that their contributions sound a little staid and artificial once the excitement of Act One is out of the way.

This release has some good things going for it, and at budget price it’s hard to beat — if you insist on modern stereo. If you’re prepared to pay a little more, though, you’d do better to look for Muti’s Chicago recording with Antonenko. If you look in the right place then you can get it for only a little more but it gives you much better performances and a full libretto with translation. In short, a much better deal.

Simon Thompson
Previous review: Göran Forsling