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Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

A review from Gramophone, March 1987

As it happened I listened to this Otello a couple of days after hearing the Kleiber/Domingo performance at Covent Garden. The most interesting comparison was between the conductors-Karajan sounding comparatively stiff-limbed after the fluidity and delicacy of Kleiber, but also grander, with more 'bottom' to his reading. But, of course, our concern here is to contrast Karajan with the sets by Levine (RCA) and Maazel (EMI). In most respects the more recent versions are tauter and more incisive than Karajan, with Maazel particularly successful in building up the dramatic tension in Act 2, helped by his Scala forces, whose attack and brio is superior to that of their 1961 Viennese predecessors. As an interpretation, Maazel's is still the one on CD that carries me along by dint of its histrionic impetus and detailed excitement, which is not to say that Karajan is in any way dull.

There are similar contrasts as regards the singers. Domingo is a more sensitive, pliable, tormented Otello than del Monaco, without exhibiting the animalistic energy of the character. Del Monaco is perhaps more believable as the Venetian general, being the one likely to have done the heroic deeds predicated by Desdemona. And in this, his second recording of the opera, he is far more moving and subtle than in his first for Decca under Erede, without evincing the more subtle colours shown by Domingo in his second recording. As John Culshaw describes in his Putting the record straight (Secker & Warburg: 1981), Bastianini, who didn't know his role, was replaced as Iago at a late stage by Protti, who had appeared in Decca's first LP Otello. Like del Monaco, he had deepened his portrayal. Though he is not keen to follow Verdi's many pp markings, he is a plausible and often quite characterful Iago, not quite the equal of Milnes for Levine but certainly as interesting as Maazel's Diaz.

Tebaldi certainly has the right lirico-spinto voice for Desdemona, but I can't say I find her here as moving as her more perceptive rivals even if their voices sometimes fail to support their intentions. However, Tebaldi's "Ave Maria" is quite as touching, let it be said, as Ricciarelli's and better voiced. The smaller roles are more satisfactorily cast here than on either RCA or EMI.

Where recording is concerned, the 26-year-old Decca rather puts to shame its rivals, sounding better engineered (by James Brown, not Gordon Parry-he was the mono engineer), more natural and more spacious in sound, even if the strings do not have quite the sheen they ought to display. Just occasionally I found the balance odd with the singers confined too far to the left; I wonder if this is a fault on the CD transfers. I should point out that the de trop ballet music included on LP is left out here, no great loss. Decca obviously have faith in this set. It certainly wears its years lightly and sounds splendidly realistic (with many stage sounds) on CD, but my allegiance to the Maazel/EMI is unwavering as a total experience of Verdi's masterpiece.




Otello: Mario Del Monaco
Desdemona: Renata Tebaldi
Iago: Aldo Protti
Cassio: Nello Romanato
Roderigo: Athos Cesarini
Lodovico: Fernando Corena
Emilia: Ana Raquel Satre
Montano: Tom Krause
Herald: Libero Arbace

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Children's Choir
Herbert von Karajan

Decca 411 618-2


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