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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Tragic opera in four acts (1887)
Otello, a Moor, commander in chief of the Venetian fleet – Johan Botha (tenor); Desdemona, his wife – Renée Fleming (soprano); Iago, an ensign – Falk Struckmann (baritone); Emelia, Iago’s wife – Renée Tatum (mezzo); Cassio, a captain under Otello – Michael Fabiano (tenor); Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman – Eduardo Valdes (tenor); Lodovico, Venetian ambassador – James Morris (bass-baritone);
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Semyon Bychkov
rec. 2012
Producer: Elijah Moshinsky
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Peter J Hall
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Video format: Aspect 16:9
Sound Format: PCM 1Stereo. DTS Digital Surround. Dolby Digital Stereo
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Chinese, Korean
DECCA DVD 0743862 [157:00 + 10:00 (bonus)]

Recently there seems to have been a proliferation of Renée Fleming’s performances on DVD from Decca. The company appears intent on publishing as many as possible. Perhaps the marketing department has realised that she has been a contracted artist to them since the early nineteen-nineties and must now be in the autumn of her professional life. Recent issues have featured her as Richard Strauss’s Marschallin and Arabella, roles in which she has excelled on the world's stages. Among a distinguished discography that includes many solo performances (review), duets, as with Hvorostovsky (see review), her late coming to Verdi’s Violetta in La Traviata (see review) was particularly welcome. To that list I add her performance here of Desdemona from the composer’s penultimate, and arguably greatest, operatic work, Otello. The opera was premiered after a long gestation when the great man was in his seventy-fourth year. As an appendix to this review I outline the story of the genesis of Verdi’s Otello and the faith, persistence and support, of friends that brought it to fruition.

Renée Fleming’s association with this role at the Metropolitan Opera goes back to 1994 when she stepped in for an injured colleague. Her reaction to the role is detailed in a brief booklet essay. There is also a hint that this issue, derived from a Met High-Definition screening to cinemas, might be her farewell to the role as with others previously in her repertoire. There is good news and bad news in respect of this issue. The sound and her performance, vocally and as an actress, are outstanding and could not be better framed than in this traditionally costumed and staged production. It is due to be replaced in the autumn of 2015. As it is, Fleming’s contribution to the love duet at the end of act one (CH.7), her soaring voice over the drama in act three and her heart-rending singing of the Willow Song and Ave Maria in act four are the highlights (CHs. 26-28).

It is a pity, given the foregoing, that the Met did not surround her with artists and a conductor who could do justice to her singing and acted interpretation, let alone to Verdi’s creation. Maybe in better circumstances Levine would have been on the rostrum. As to Semyon Bychkov’s interpretation, the word 'anaemic' would be too strong. He cannot even raise a half-decent storm at the opening and wanders between the lyrical and pseudo-dramatic throughout. Further, he seems unappreciative of the change of flowing style incorporated by Verdi in his writing for Otello, as I outline in the appendix below.

At the best of times Johan Botha has not the most convincing figure du part for the title role. He had cancelled other performances of the run due to a virus which might have explained his dry tone, effortful singing and constantly perspiring face. Falk Struckmann acted a saturnine Iago. With his tall angular figure and facial contortions he was the epitome of evil as his credo stated (CH.9), except that his tone was completely lacking in Italianata. He sang as if in Wagner but I must admit that the audience were significantly more impressed than I was. Elsewhere Michael Fabiano was, in figure and tone, an elegant Cassio and Renée Tatum a sympathetic and supportive Amelia. The chorus, unusually, were ragged at times in a manner that Levine would never have tolerated.
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 was 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 in the intervening years. 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 notwithstanding his protests 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. The composer 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 prevaricate on this 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 project, this time the revision of Simon Boccanegra of 1857 (Venice), knowing that 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. 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 and its conclusion eventually came 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 really had thought that his book of operatic composition was closed with this, his twenty-seventh title. The conception of Otello involved greater, and significantly different, orchestral complexity compared to that of Aida and Don Carlos. It marks a major compositional movement 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: 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


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