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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, July 2011

Several European governments during the 1960s recognized and promoted the value of their arts by using funds to record and broadcast a series of operas with their finest ensembles. Austria was among these. Securing the services of the Vienna State Opera, Otto Schenk as director, and three top-notch performers in the leads, it produced in 1965 a German-language, black-and-white Otello that continues to impress, many years, technological advances, and performances later.

Schenk deserves a significant portion of the credit. His blocking is natural and dynamic; his camerawork, involving an extensive use of indoor cranes, effective. Despite difficult working conditions—the orchestra situated in a separate hall from the stage performers due to the size of their numbers, and the need to record the whole thing live, instead of using playback overdubs—the results are always focused, and not infrequently impressive.

Comparisons with another made-for-TV Otello, this time directed in 1969 by Walter Felsenstein (Arthaus Musik 101 291), reveal interesting similarities and differences. Both directors typically give very specific roles at any given moment to each chorus member within small activity cells, so that the stage appears filled with a series of apparently spontaneous but thoroughly rehearsed, discrete events that reinforce a central principle. But where Felsenstein placed the ceremonial setup for the ambassador in front of and around Otello and Iago in act III, for example, Schenk uses the depth of his massive stone court chamber to have numerous figures stride through the background, eventually breaking their pattern to move into the foreground with the Moor. Occasionally the camera image moves in too tight, or loses the emotional focus on one of the main players by literally jump cutting when the music switches to another. This is not generally a problem, however, and given the indoor set limitations Schenk was faced with, he really did very well.

I have a few reservations about two of the leads, and none at all about the third. Wolfgang Windgassen’s bright but narrow tone would hardly seem ideal for “Esultate,” and he doesn’t quite bring it off. His performance grows, however, as he interprets the part vocally and physically. The radiant smile that takes possession of his face when Desdemona first appears is not a moment one can easily forget, nor are the reactions, however carefully scaled down to avoid grabbing attention, with which this Otello subsequently listens to recollections of newfound love by his wife. He is a willing partner in duets rather than a singer waiting for his turn, and a riveting soloist who constructs his monologues with such apparent artlessness as to bring the character to life. It’s a cliché, of course, but in this case, it’s true.

Sena Jurinac’s voice was no longer quite what it had been in the 1950s, but it’s still able to meet all the demands placed on it. Her Ave Maria has some lovely notes in the upper register, and the Willow Song some beautiful soft tones, though conductor Argeo Quadri isn’t inclined to pause for the lyrical moment. (He also takes Otello’s “Dio! mi potevi” in the quicker tempo more common today, rather than the one traditionally used.) Her “E un di sul mio sorriso” melts, and she makes far more of Desdemona’s various moods than many singers gifted with the role.

Norman Mittelmann frankly surprised me. I’ve heard him described before as a reasonably good performer, but nothing led me to expect the level of accomplishment he brings to Iago. The voice is a solid, dark baritone whose tonal quality at times eerily resembles that of Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder. But it is the intensity of his interpretation that makes this Iago stand out. After the well-gauged histrionics of his Credo, the beautiful soft, cantabile singing beginning at the German equivalent of “Vien dopo tanta irrision la Morte” is remarkable. His “Era la notte” is a whispered confidence, Cassio’s supposed words as sweetly uttered a poison as any Otello has received. It helps that Windgassen looks both accepting and positively sick, but the palm here belongs to Mittelmann, who physically acts the role of this Shakespearean arch-villain to perfection.

It remains to mention that several distinguished performers can be heard in minor roles. Margarita Lilova, William Blankenship, and Adolf Dallapozza in particular add much to this Otello simply by not detracting from the high level set by the leads. That’s saying quite a lot.

Be aware that some period conventions seen in this Otello might seem outlandish today. One of these that I dislike both here and in Felsenstein’s version is the way the audio track concentrates solely on the score, where the images would lead us to expect sounds as well. There’s no wind in the early, stormy pages of act I, despite a good visual use of it, and no sound of many people entering with the ambassador’s suite. It’s the only disruptive element in the production to modern sensibilities, allowing of course for the shock of hearing German in Otello. Even the use of black-and-white works well with Gerhard Hruby’s highly atmospheric sets.

The video format is 4:3, and the sound format PCM mono. I can find no evidence of deterioration in either element, testifying to the materials and good storage conditions Austrian Television employed.

I’m certainly not about to throw out any number of other Otellos I’ve got on DVD for this one, but it easily holds its own against the rest.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, January 2011

For someone growing up in the 1960s in the countryside of Sweden, far from any opera house, the only accessible way of seeing opera, as opposed to listening to it, was television. Luckily Swedish Television’s only channel at the time was quite generous to opera lovers. I remember seeing Le nozze di Figaro twice from the Salzburg Festival, a German Madama Butterfly (if I remember correctly with Anneliese Rothenberger), a German Rigoletto with the great singing-actor Ernst Gutstein, a Wozzeck with Walter Berry and several others including the famous Göran Gentele-Sixten Ehrling Un ballo in maschera. I have no recollection of seeing this Otello, more is the pity since I had come under the spell of Karajan’s Decca recording and really longed to see this opera. Now, 45 years later, I could muster little enthusiasm, considering the experience would involve a black and white TV film in mono sound and on top of that sung in German.

How wrong I was! The sound isn’t bad, nowhere near the old Decca but well defined and with acceptable dynamics. The quality of the pictures is very good and with good lighting, Otto Schenk and his camera crew, have succeeded in creating atmospheric scenes, almost in the manner of Ingmar Bergman. There’s a dark and threatening opening scene at the harbour with roaring winds and the people in horror. All the following scenes are evocative through the interplay of light and shade. Created in the studio there was no room for overviews, even the massed scenes are shown in fragments with a lot of individual roles for the members of the chorus. Light and shade, drama and repose succeed each other in a dramaturgical ebb and flow that sustains narrative tension throughout.

Argeo Quadri was for many years one of the most sought after Italian conductors. He is best known to record collectors for accompanying some of the greatest singers’ recital discs. Names like Birgit Nilsson, Mario Del Monaco, Tom Krause and Gwyneth Jones come to mind. He leads a taut performance of Otello with sensible tempos. It is hardly his fault that the music is cut off very brusquely at the end of acts. Whether it was his or the director’s choice to leave out the beautiful orchestral postlude to act I is difficult to know but every musician should in all likelihood grit his/her teeth at such a decision.

That the opera is sung in German—opera in the vernacular was still the order of the day in the 1960s—initially feels a bit strange, but one soon adjusts. I have listened to so many recordings from the 1920s and 1930s of excerpts from sundry operas, and Jeder Knabe is quite OK for the opening phrase of Otello’s final solo Niun mi tema. Leo Slezak, Martin Öhman and Lauritz Melchior—three superb Otellos during the inter-war years—have immortalized the aria using that wording.

Wolfgang Windgassen also belongs to their circle though from a later generation. A superb Wagnerian, with nineteen seasons at Bayreuth to his credit, his was not the super-sized voice of a Melchior but his innate musicality and expressive phrasing allowed him to become possibly the best Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried and Tristan of his generation. His Esultate! at his first entrance in Otello may not ring out as gloriously as that of Mario Del Monaco on the Karajan recording, but he has thwe necessary intensity and his singing at the opening of the love duet is beautiful. Otello is surely for a heroic singer but there is so much more to the role and Windgassen’s portrait of the moor shows all the facets of this complicated character, being manipulated by Iago until he breaks down and finally kills his beloved wife. The confrontations with Iago make for great music theatre and the final monologue is heartbreaking.

Iago is sung by the Canadian baritone Norman Mittelmann, a singer I do not remember encountering before. Born in 1932 he was just past 30 when this recording was made. Vocally he is well up to the requirements for this devil in disguise. His insinuations are delivered with ingratiating tone and his distorted features are truly frightening in the masterly Credo. Judging by his performance here it is a mystery that he wasn’t regularly heard on records during his heyday. The whole of act II is captivating from beginning to end.

Sena Jurinac is probably best remembered as one of the greatest Mozart sopranos during the post-war years, well documented on record. Her Desdemona is touching and vulnerable. Her tone, though not as lovely as in the 1950s when she was at the zenith of her career, matches her expressive looks.

The supporting cast is excellent and it was especially nice to see Adolf Dallapozza, who during the 1960s and 1970s was one of the finest lyric tenors. He was a good Alfred in Fledermaus and was Solti’s choice as David in his first Meistersinger. His Rodrigo is youthful and rather flamboyant whereas William Blankenship’s Cassio is a tragic victim of Iago’s scheming.

Those wanting a modern Otello in good sound and sung in Italian need not bother about this issue. Even so, I was fascinated by the production and first and foremost by the interplay between Windgassen and Mittelmann. For the historically inclined reader this is a real treat.

David Shengold
Opera News, December 2010

This 1965 television film, a Vienna-Stuttgart collaboration, is in most ways a fine performance, with a clean print and only the occasional drop in sound or clarity. But Arthaus Musik should be more up-front on the packaging about the fact that it is in German translation—it’s suggested in the title but confirmed only in tiny symbols on the back cover.

Otto Schenk’s production generally makes clever use of the studio settings and a very mobile camera; occasionally he urges Norman Mittelmann’s Iago—working in the bluff “regular guy” mode of Philip Seymour Hoffman—into over-the-top, melodramatic gestures and parlando. But there are insightful moments, too, such as the way the camera lingers on each principal’s face in turn as the great concertato of Act III is launched. The musical performance under longtime Vienna staple Argeo Quadri—live, not lip-synched—is very sound, if not a blazing statement à la Toscanini or Carlos Kleiber.

The chief virtue of the film lies in its preservation of two major twentieth-century singers who had very limited New York (and indeed American) careers. Wolfgang Windgassen gave the Met a scant seven performances of his Ring roles (Siegmund and Siegfried) in 1957 but dominated Wagner performance elsewhere for two decades. His tenor is almost anti-Italianate in timbre, but it is intensely expressive and (since he wisely retained Tamino in his active repertory while essaying Tristan) still ductile. Dynamics are expertly handled to encompass both delicacy and violent outbursts. Very dignified but a menace when angered, Windgassen really seems to embody the character, with no telegraphed heroics or self-conscious posing. Actions and phrases have consistent motivation. He’s magnificent in Otello’s death scene. His performance belies arrogant divas claiming that operatic acting started with Callas—and then revived only with them. Sena Jurinac, who was never successfully lured to the Met, graced San Francisco Opera sporadically between 1959 and 1980; Desdemona furnished her 1963 Chicago debut role. Not ideal for her (the registration of her dark-hued soprano doesn’t always match Verdi’s purposes), the role still showcases her musical acumen and sympathetic persona, not to mention her often lovely tone in the “Ave Maria” and many cantilena moments.

Mittelmann’s Iago supplies plentiful tenorish mezza voce—not all of it on pitch, alas. If not so subtle or scary as Renato Capecchi in RAI’s film, the Canadian baritone has his strong moments vocally and dramatically. In retrospect, Texan tenor William Blankenship (Cassio) might profitably have exchanged roles with Adolf Dallapozza (Rodrigo), but both are capable, as are Wiener Staastoper stalwarts Margarita Lilova (here a handsome young Emilia) and Walter Kreppel (reliable as ever as Lodovico). Norbert Balatsch’s Viennese choral forces, good in the opening scene, are a little bit disappointing in the (shortened) Act II encounter with Desdemona.

Wayne Gooding
Opera Canada, December 2010

The Arthaus Musik DVD is of a 1965 Austrian made-for-television film of the opera, with Winnipeg-born Norman Mittelmann as the villainous Iago.

The Austrian movie, directed by Otto Schenk, is admittedly an oddity. It suffers from some cuts (in the garden scene, for example) and it’s sung in German. It’s really a vehicle for two great singers of the day: tenor Wolfgang Windgassen, best known as a Wagnerian, in the title role, and the lovely (in voice and appearance) Croatian-Austrian soprano Sena Jurinac as Desdemona. The conductor, Argeo Quagri, was Italian, but had a close association with the Vienna State Opera, whose chorus sings here along with the Vienna Boys Choir. The orchestra is the Südfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (now the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra). As a result of these forces, the performance has a distinctly German sound and feel almost as if Verdi wanted to show that he could play Wagner’s game in his own style and idiom. The Wagnerian aura is accentuated by sets (Gerhard Hruby) and costumes (Leni Bauer Ecsi) that look as if they were originally made for Tannhauser or Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Beyond this, however, there’s much to enjoy musically. Windgassen isn’t particularly nuanced, but his is a full-throated, committed delivery that blends quite well with the more silvery line of Jurinac. All the portamenti and rubati might sound old-fashioned to some, but I regret the pendulum has swung too much away from such qualities. Mittlemann, rather outside this singing tradition, is nonetheless an eloquent and effective Iago, a bullying street tough who’s a bit prone to overacting the part of the villain. Maybe Schenk directed him this way. This is a studio performance, and his direction is lively and dramatically varied, albeit somewhat melodramatic in parts. Interestingly, this movie was made just a couple of years before he embarked on a Met career that would culminate 20 years later in the much-loved Wagner Ring cycle that only came to an end at the end of last season.

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, November 2010

The scenery and costumes are realistic and evocative, and the cast is very good…as is the direction by Otto Schenk.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

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