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VERDI: Otello

DVD Button Röschmann, Mayer; Cura, Bernheim, C. Álvarez; Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden and Staatskapelle Dresden, Thielemann. Production: Boussard. C Major 740008, 147 mins., subtitled

DVD Button Nuccio, Tarieli; Neill, Giusti, Frontali; Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini” and Fondazione Orchestra Nazionale delle Marche, Frizza. Production: Azorín. Dynamic 37767 (2), 146 mins., subtitled

Recordings Otello Disc Covers 1017

EACH OF THESE STAGINGS—one by Vincent Boussard for last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, the other by Paco Azorín at the Macerata Opera Festival a few months later—has its strengths and weaknesses. I prefer the one from Macerata, because it better evokes the scenes described in the libretto. In Salzburg’s opening, for example, the chorus and secondary principals mill about on a bare stage, huddled in a vague “concert clump”; the intended locale is unclear. Macerata’s staging at least suggests the disarray of a storm at sea, with some of the chorus deployed along the ramps of the unit set. That set later serves as a backdrop for projections, some of which I didn’t get (the blackboard full of equations in Act III) and others that I got too well (the healthy and barren willow trees in Act IV). But I liked that Azorín has Iago eavesdrop on the other principals, sometimes directing them by gesture; Emilia also eavesdrops, horrified, on Iago’s “Credo.”

Boussard’s production at Salzburg features several clumsy details. Otello and Desdemona spend much of their Act III duet at opposite ends of a long table; when she sang that she feared what she saw in his eyes, I wondered how she could see it. And there’s no bed in Act IV, so the poor Desdemona, Dorothea Röschmann, must curl up on the floor. Both productions also add gratuitous supernumeraries—in Salzburg, a black-clad angel, who doesn’t do well by Iago; in Macerata, six young men in leather-punk garb, one of whom supplies Otello with the dagger he uses to kill himself.

Both conductors bring out a kinship with Verdi’s other late masterpiece, Falstaff, that I’d not previously noticed. In Salzburg, the sometimes-wayward Christian Thielemann is on his best behavior, conducting with energy and style, maintaining buoyant rhythms, limning the orchestral textures with color and character. He’s less attentive to some vocal matters: the soloists in the quartet don’t match properly; in “Sì, pel ciel,” José Cura seems unaware of the rhythm and oblivious to his partner; and Thielemann’s orchestra can’t follow Röschmann’s rubatos in the willow song. Riccardo Frizza’s Italian ensemble sounds several desks thinner, but the playing is excellent and the trim sonority sounds more active, vital and idiomatic.

If the opera’s success depends on the title character, Cura’s puffy, wobbly “Esultate!” doesn’t bode well. Later he shows clear, bright tone in the midrange and even at some peaks. However, throaty patches, vowel distortions—including, in Act III, his wife’s name—and some flat-out yelling all indicate that he’s stuck at full tilt. Dynamic, conversely, offers a genuine Otello—Stuart Neill, a buzzy, full-throated tenor of true heroic amplitude who, after a careful “Esultate!,” projects the music with ease. His singing dominates the stage even at in-between dynamics; it’s varied and expressive, though his facial expression is relentlessly deadpan. 

Recordings Otello in Macerata hdl 1017
Gossip, Columns: Otello in Macerata
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Choosing between the Desdemonas is more difficult. Thielemann’s Röschmann has a beautiful, even scale, with an Italianate hint of chest voice in the low tones. Her rhythmic impulse is good, her manner is urgent, and her top notes spin gorgeously. At first, Frizza’s Jessica Nuccio sounds less finished, or less experienced, with a vibrant top but shallower midrange. Her presence, however, better matches the character’s vulnerability, and she comes into her own in a simple, heartfelt final act, in which the midrange finally opens up.

Carlos Álvarez sings Iago well; his drinking song boasts easy downward chromatics and solid high As. He also embodies the role with an actor’s subtle, spontaneous immediacy: he’s strikingly dispassionate at the end of Act III. At Macerata, Roberto Frontali has to shout the high As, and his performance is inevitably less nuanced; his leaner sound, however, works well in the ensembles—his asides cut through without losing projection—and he’s a vivid “puppetmaster.”

The videography is effective in both, especially in the ensembles, directing the viewer’s attention to the asides within the larger framework. So do the English captions, which are excellent throughout the Dynamic DVD. They’re fine for most of C Major’s, but during the final mêlée, they become imprecise and noticeably lag.  —Stephen Francis Vasta 

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