Magazine article Gramophone

Verdi's Otello

Magazine article Gramophone

Verdi's Otello

Article excerpt

The past eight decades have seen many recordings of this tenor-led operatic masterpiece. Trawling through them all. Richard Lawrence finds at least three very special Otellos, and some electric conducting

Verdi and Wagner were almost exact contemporaries, born a few months apart in 1813. Wagner died at the age of 69 in 1883; Verdi was 87 when he died in 1901. How would posterity rate Verdi if he, too, had died in 1883? It's possible that without the final operatic masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff, his reputation would rest primarily on the Requiem of 1874. We have God to thank for Verdi living on. For Verdi living on to compose Otello we have to thank Giulio Ricordi, his publisher, who planted the idea in 1879, and Arrigo Boito, the librettist: between them they played the initially dubious Verdi with infinite tact and encouragement. Boito, a composer himself, produced a superb, taut libretto that improved on the original by, among other things, dropping Shakespeare's Act 1 and setting the entire action in Cyprus. The premiere at La Scala, Milan, on February 5, 1887, was a huge success. The cast was led by Francesco Tamagno, who had previously sung Gabriele Adorno in the revised Simon Boccanegra and the title-role in the four-act Don Carlo. The part of Otello has been one of the pinnacles of the tenor repertoire ever since; but it's worth noting that until a very late stage the opera was to be called Iago.

THE EARLY RECORDINGS

Our first recording comes from La Scala in 1931/32, and it's astonishingly good for its age. Carlo Sabajno gets disciplined singing from the chorus in Act 1 ('Vittoria!' and 'Fuoco di gioia!'). Nicola Fusati and Apollo Granforte as Otello and Iago are imprecise with their rhythm, but Fusati has ringing top notes and Granforte colours his tone to excellent effect. Like many of his successors, Fusati misaccentuates the opening phrase of Otello's monologue in Act 3: this may have soon become common practice, but it's correct on the Toscanini recording--and Toscanini played in the orchestra at the premiere. There's a weedy cor anglais in Act 4, but overall this is well worth hearing. Almost as good, but in variable sound, is the broadcast from the New York Met in 1938. There's plenty of fire to Ettore Panizza's conducting--Otello's smothering of Desdemona is as vivid as Fafner clubbing Fasolt to death in Das Rheingold--but the USP is the chance to hear Giovanni Martinelli, the reigning Otello of the day. He starts the first phrase of the love duet a bit flat - as does Fusati, come to that--but soon improves. Lawrence Tibbett is a subtle, understated Iago.

RAMON VINAY

The leading Otello in the years immediately after the Second World War was the Chilean tenor Ramon Vinay. He began his professional career as a baritone, and it's the baritonal darkness of his voice that informs his recorded performances. There's a live 1955 recording from Covent Garden under Kubelik (9/06; available on iTunes and elsewhere as a download), but here we will focus on three earlier ones, of which two are outstanding. The famous one is Arturo Toscanini's, assembled from NBC broadcasts in 1947. The conducting is electric, it goes without saying. Toscanini coached Vinay in the part, and the singer repaid his mentor with a performance of searing intensity. Giuseppe Valdengo's Iago is not quite of this calibre; neither is Herva Nelli, who runs out of puff at the end of Desdemona's first sentence. Two unusual features are the use of solo voices in the scene with the children; and (even harder to justify) the cellos doubling the double basses at the octave when Otello enters to murder his wife.

Less familiar is the version from the Met, broadcast a year later. Fritz Busch's conducting is immensely exciting. The Act 1 choruses are vivid; the brass is menacing as Otello waits to eavesdrop on Iago and Cassio; and the full orchestra, tuttaforza, at the smothering of Desdemona is stupendous. …

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