, March 2006
Having (amazingly enough) not been given at the Met since 1913, Otello was at last revived there in 1938, with the same three principals that adorned the highly successful Simon Boccanegra of 1935. At the age of 52, Martinelli – primo uomo among Verdian tenors in the house for 25 years by then – was attempting the title role for the first time. His peculiarly sharp-edged, plangent tenor will always be an acquired taste, but as an artist who understood Verdian interpretations in the very heart of his being he remains unsurpassed, and this was to prove the climax of his career in the Fach. Not even Vickers or Domingo matches him in his understanding and projection of the text. That, allied to his impeccable legato, so important in the love duet and Act 3 monologue, his minute control of dynamic gradation, and his tense, stentorian tone make his Otello a moving, tragic figure. This is nowhere more apparent than just before the vengeance duet, when he recalls the handkerchief he had given Desdemona at a happier time, and the death scene, too, is overwhelming in its sad declamation.
Tibbet was a lago fit for this Otello. The mellifluous tone used to insinuating purpose – I know of no subtler or more dynamically accurate account of ‘Il sogno’ than this – is just one aspect of a highly intelligent, well-thought-through account of the entire role. His is a horribly believable and suave reading that is controlled by innate musicality. Rethberg – a long standing favourite at the Met – takes time to reach her best. She sounds a trifle casual in the love duet, but by the time of the frightening third-act encounter with the Moor she produces the refulgent tones for which she was famed, and her ‘Salce’ and ‘Ave Maria’ are among the most moving on disc.
The smaller roles, Moscona’s sonorous Lodovico apart, are indifferently cast.
The other glory of this famous recording is the electrifying interpretation of Panizza (for a long time Toscanini’s assistant at La Scala), at all times taut, aware of the drama’s progress and sensitive in detail, with splendid contributions from chorus and orchestra.
The original recording was made professionally at Tibbet’s request but has in the intervening tears become worn. However, Ward Marston has here managed to improve the sound appreciably enough to make one forget its drawbacks. At budget price, this legendary performance, repeated over the next three seasons owing to public demand (later off-the-air recordings exist but find Martinelli in less inviting voice), is a must-buy for anyone interested in the work’s performing history.