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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901) Otello (1887)
Giovanni Martinelli (tenor) – Otello; Elizabeth Rethberg (soprano) – Desdemona; Lawrence Tibbett (baritone) – Iago; Nicholas Massue (tenor) – Cassio; Thelma Votipka (mezzo) – Emilia; Giovanni Paltrinieri (tenor) – Roderigo; Nicola Moscona (bass) – Lodovico; George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Montano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Ettore Panizza
Recorded at the New York Metropolitan Opera, 12th February 1938
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.111018-19 [75:00 + 75:00]

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This live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera back in 1938 has been around before. Despite disastrous sound it has repeatedly been hailed as possibly the best performance of this operatic masterpiece ever recorded.

In his Producer’s Note, Ward Marston delineates its chequered history. Normally the original NBC Network discs would have been available for these Met broadcasts, but in this case they could not be tracked down. There was however a set of discs made for Lawrence Tibbett from radio station WJZ. These had been played frequently which, together with careless storage, had impaired the sound considerably; today they are unavailable. In the 1950s a transfer to magnetic tape was made and this is the source from which Marston has been working, removing clicks and other noises, correcting pitch etc – hours and hours of laborious work, for which all opera lovers have to be very grateful. It is still a bad sound which one has to be very indulgent with, but as so often with these recordings, once one has been caught by the performance the sonic limitations are of secondary importance. I learnt much of the standard jazz repertoire by listening to Voice of America’s broadcasts via short wave in the late 1950s. It is perhaps for this reason that I found it quite easy to adjust. Nevertheless one still has to regret that it has not been possible to preserve for posterity more of what the audience witnessed that night. After all three of the best singers of the mid-war era can be heard surpassing themselves. They might have been less impressive without the assistance of conductor Ettore Panizza, and it his contribution, together with that of the chorus and orchestra that we first encounter. The opening storm sequence, one the most dramatic openings to any opera, is the most frantic ever heard. All the way through this fantastic score Panizza never lets the tension slacken. This is as white-hot a performance as can be imagined. But Otello is not only drama, and in the softer, more intimate moments Panizza is as sensitive as any of his more illustrious competitors: try the ravishing love duet which ends act 1 and Desdemona’s Willow song and Ave Maria in act 4.

Sadly the primitive sound cannot do full justice to the conductor’s efforts, so in the end it is the vocal contributions that have to be our main concern. Even here there are problems, since the sound and the recorded balance is variable. Otello’s entrance with that fanfare-like Esultate! (CD1 track 3) is very distant and fails to make much impact; in the theatre or on a well-balanced modern recording it is one of the most thrilling moments. On his next appearance, though, when interrupting the fight between Cassio and Montano CD1 track 8, Martinelli’s voice rings out magnificently. In the love duet he is both dignified and tender, though others have managed to express Otello’s warmth more convincingly, notably Domingo in any of his three official recordings. In the second act when Iago’s scheming has started to be effective, Martinelli expresses all the stages of his mental state. In Ora per sempre (CD1 track 19) his voice cuts like a shining dagger through the orchestra, not absolutely steady at all times, but that hardly detracts from the overall greatness of his performance; in fact it rather underlines his mental instability. And the duet Si, pel ciel shows a person in total despair. His third act further exacerbates the feeling of madness; his monologue Dio! mi potevi a moving look into his tortured soul. The end of the act is almost unbearably intense. In the fourth act he then caps his performance with a heart-rending Niun mi tema. Once one has become accustomed to Martinelli’s very special sound, his rendering of the part can’t fail to make a deep impression.

Even more impressive is Lawrence Tibbett’s Iago. He is wonderfully oily in the first act scene with Roderigo. The drinking song is marvellously well vocalized, outgoing but with an undertone of menace. In the second act scene with Cassio, well sung and acted by the otherwise unknown Nicholas Massue, he caresses his phrases seductively. He is diabolic in the Credo as his insinuations and intimations leave Otello a mental wreck in the following scene. He sings Era la notte "sotto voce" with honeyed tone and in the duet with Otello Si pel ciel he is both authorative and noble. "Golden" is an epithet normally reserved for tenors, but I can’t find a better metal to describe Tibbett’s magnificent voice. This is a full-size portrait of Iago.

By the side of these two portrayals Elizabeth Rethberg is more ordinary, but of course Desdemona is not a part that gives the soprano many opportunities for dramatic action. However she sings well in the love duet and is lovely in the scene with the chorus in act 2, The Willow Song is beautifully sung, though others, notably Tebaldi, have done more with this aria. Her Ave Maria is wonderful with a magically soft high note near the end. The comprimario parts are taken by Met mainstays, of whom Nicola Moscona, who sings a good Lodovico, obviously made his radio debut that evening. This and much more information is conveyed by legendary radio announcer Milton Cross, who is heard in a brief pre-performance talk and then during the applause after each act, when he gives colourful descriptions of the artists’ costumes. It definitely enhances the "I was there" feeling. There are no texts and translations but a detailed synopsis by Keith Anderson makes it easy to follow the proceedings.

While not being a substitute for a good modern-sound recording – Karajan (Decca) and Chung (DG) being the obvious recommendations – this is such an essential interpretation of the score that it should be in every respectable opera collection, warts and all.

Göran Forsling

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