Chicago Classical Review
, August 2009
With DVD, Otello finally has the right medium to appreciate Verdi’s masterpiece in all its rich detail and full glory. An operatic milestone with a supreme blend of music and theater, Otello presents a tremendous challenge to those taking on the leading role. The DVD catalog currently offers a good list of options with Plácido Domingo taking the lead with four versions: Zeffirelli’s 1986 film, Covent Garden (1992), the Met (1996), and, now, his final performance at La Scala in 2001.
Simultaneously, the Met has released a gem from their archives with Jon Vickers’ imposing Otello from a 1978 telecast. It’s an occasion to appreciate the electricity generated by this tenor in a live performance against the ultra-polished and ascetic lip-synched Karajan film from 1973. This new Met arrival becomes an instant rival to the 1996 Domingo from the same theater, which boasts the heavenly singing of Renée Fleming (DG DVD). Each version conveys the highest standards and best theatrical approach of its decade; both feature the outstanding James Levine riding the Rolls-Royce of opera ensembles, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
The several filmed entries with Domingo prove his evolution in a role he can claim as his own, yet Vickers’ Moor tends to be underrated. In fact, he was the bridge from the stentorian Mario Del Monaco (or the atypical Ramon Vinay) to Domingo’s modern psychological complexity. When confronted with Vickers’ Giasone during a Medea rehearsal, Callas proclaimed “Finally a tenor who can act!” This Met DVD puts Vickers back in the spotlight reaffirming his stature as an extraordinary actor if rather controversial singer.
Always an acquired taste, Vickers’ unorthodox instrument has many detractors, even though he could spin a haunting sound reflecting inner torment like nobody else. Like his Tristan, his Moor is thrilling; a wounded titanic animal and a dangerous lion on stage. Where Domingo is tormented and very human, Vickers is imperial, almost on the verge of psychopathic. Where Domingo awakens pity, Vickers arouses alienation. Where the Spaniard is madly in love with Desdemona, the Canadian is more in love with himself.
Like Domingo, Vickers made an intriguing journey to maturity, from his recording under Serafin (1960), his first Otello on the Met stage in 1967, then Karajan’s recording and film to these final 1978 performances in the new house at 52. Luckily, both devastating portraits by these two artists are now part of their legacy on DVD.
A singer-actress to match him, Renata Scotto is Vickers’ perfect contrast and counterpart. Just to watch their gripping interaction is worth the DVD. In the great Italian tradition, her noble Desdemona looks beautiful and delicate, yet also revealing a resolute woman. A vibrant, strong-minded angel, she never makes you forget that this patrician girl took the risk to marry an officer of lower class, abandoning her father to accompany him to Cyprus. A luminous sad creature in a strange land, from the first entrance she suggests an abused wife trying to adapt to a new reality. Caught in a threatening web, she secretly knows she is doomed. Her calm terror opposite her unpredictable husband makes the second act confrontation a compelling eye-opener. Adding impeccable musicianship to this remarkable creation in what is usually seen a bland role makes you wish for the Met release on DVD of her definitive Suor Angelica.
Last but not least is Cornell Macneil’s Iago, one of the baritone’s specialties. In the mold of Tito Gobbi, his villain is a highly theatrical product compensating for some vocal dryness (he was 56 at that time). Besides the three principals there is no great sense of stage direction and a competent supporting cast. The Lodovico of the young James Morris is a vocal luxury that will develop into the admirable Iago of the 1996 version.
Excusing a few out-of-focus moments and some errant angles, the 1978 telecast stands the passing of time respectably well. Director Kirk Browning’s closeups amplify broad gestures intended more for a huge auditorium than the camera; however, a fiery glance between his stars makes up for any directorial lapses.
By today’s standard of traditional productions, the Zeffirelli looks dark and outdated, and is no match for Elijah Moshinsky’s elegant and spacious 1996 design (borrowed and improved from Covent Garden). In both Met productions Peter Hall was responsible for the richly embroidered costumes.
After 26 years epitomizing the Moor, La Scala’s opening night of 2001 signaled Domingo’s last Otello in the vastly stylized Graham Vick production. It is a highly emotionally charged event and he sang miraculously well, age considerations apart. His coolly restrained Desdemona is the excellent Barbara Frittoli, showing lustrous tone in spite of an incipient vibrato. As expected, the veteran Leo Nucci delivers a subtly powerful if cautious Iago.
The undoubted hero of the evening is Riccardo Muti who gave one of the most electrifying versions of Otello on record. The austere, exquisite cylindrical stage and rich costumes by husband-and-wife team Ezio Frigerio-Franca Squarciapino makes an effective contrast between the abstract and the figurative, at times evoking Pre-Raphaelite images. Sound and image are excellent.
While Levine found each singer in absolute control for the great concertante of the third act, Muti, unusually, uses the rare Paris 1894 version at La Scala. Watching the impressive choruses of these two great houses makes an additional grand contest.
For theatrical excitement, both Met Otello DVDs (Vickers 1978 and Domingo 1996) are preferable to the Covent Garden (with a superb Kiri te Kanawa), the Karajan and Zeffirelli films and the intense but uneven Barcelona Liceo set with Jose Cura. Nonetheless, the Scala is a good contender, for Muti and as a souvenir of Domingo’s farewell in the role. Now it is the turn of the Milanese theater to release the unforgettable 1976 Carlos Kleiber performance with Domingo, Freni and Cappuccilli. That would make the Otello feast complete.