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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Otello (1887)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor) – Otello; Raffaella Angeletti (soprano) – Desdemona; Sebastian Catana (baritone) – Jago; Luis Dámaso (tenor) – Cassio; Marifé Nogales (mezzo-soprano) – Emilia; Vicenç Esteve (tenor) – Roderigo; Kristjan Möisnik (bass) – Lodovico; Michael Dries (bass) – Montano; Enrique Sánchez (baritone) – A Herald
Orfeón Donostiarra; Los ‘Peques’ del León de Oro; Oviedo Filarmonia/Friedrich Haider
rec. Auditorio Principe Felipe, Oviedo, Spain, 22 August – 8 September 2007; 18-26 August 2009
Libretto available online.
NAXOS 8.660357-58 [64:32 + 67:25]

The market is not exactly short of recordings of what I regard as the operatic masterwork assoluta. Competition is keen, even though some good ones seem to be out of the catalogue at the moment. Those that are available should cover the needs of most lovers of Otello: the legendary Toscanini; Karajan with Del Monaco, Tebaldi and Protti; Solti with Carlo Cossutta, Margaret Price and Gabriel Bacquier; Levine with Domingo, Scotto and Milnes; Alain Lombard with Giuseppe Giacomini, Margaret Price and Matteo Manuguerra (a favourite of mine); Myung-Whun Chung with Domingo, Studer and Leiferkus – and a plethora of other studio and live recordings on CD and DVD. So what has this newcomer to offer? Suspicions arose when I looked at the back-cover and saw recording dates: 2007 and 2009. Why did it have to wait in the pipeline for more than five years?

When I started listening I very soon found that I needn’t have been worried. The recorded sound is prima – and the very opening of act I is as good a test-track as any with wind howling, waves beating against the pier and people shouting in despair when they see the ship fight a battle with the sea. No, there are no gimmicks, no wind-machine, no pre-recorded sounds of waves, not even a five-minute organ pedal bass note as in the Karajan recording for Decca. The orchestra at full blast and the chorus screaming out their desperation is enough to create this feeling of doomsday. It's enough to create a spellbinding opening – Verdi knew his trade. I had to turn up the volume a bit from my normal setting but then all the thrill was there. The orchestra – not very well-known, at least not on record – is excellent. Friedrich Haider on the other hand is a known quantity as opera conductor. He had been principal conductor of the Oviedo Filarmonia since 2004, so conductor and orchestra knew each other well. The chorus, Orfeón Donostiarra, is regarded as the most important choral ensemble in Spain and rarely have I heard this music – or any other dramatic choral music for that matter – sung with such clean attack, such even and homogenous sound. Not a single voice sticks out, which often happens with opera-house choruses. The only disadvantage with this is possibly that the last ounce of dramatic intensity is missing, that they may be too well-behaved but that is a minor drawback. I gladly sacrifice that last ounce to hear this marvellous choral body. The whole first scene is truly marvellous. In the second act the ladies of the chorus on their own deliver ethereal pianissimo singing, and here the admirable boys from León de Oro turn out to be golden-toned. The dramatic end of the third act is also excellent.

Friedrich Haider chooses sensible tempos throughout in a reading that can be called ‘safe’ – no eccentricities, but neither is there the extra thrill that Toscanini or Karajan (in his Decca recording) can conjure up. Much better though a middle course; certainly an improvement on the extremely slow tempos that Barbirolli opted for. I haven’t been able to check his timings but my memory tells me that he managed to love the music to death.

One of the most thrilling moments in any opera is Otello’s first entrance when he hurls his Esultate! towards the Cypriots – and the audience. No one has surpassed Mario Del Monaco in the Karajan recording, his magnificent voice dazzling like a welding flame. Robert Dean Smith misses the effect completely. There is no explosive force, no sense of glory, he is sorely strained and has a disturbing vibrato. Not a good start. He later shows other qualities. He is deeply involved, though from time to time he can seem underpowered and occasionally his tone becomes pinched. What he has in abundance is however a broad palette of nuances and colours – where Del Monaco is more monochrome and inclined to sing at forte and above most of the time. It must be said though that Karajan managed to moderate him quite a lot. In his earlier mono recording for Alberto Erede he tries to break the sound-barrier most of the time. Robert Dean Smith, who is best known as a Wagner specialist – I have heard his Tristan twice – excels in finely graded nuances throughout. I would suggest readers first try his long monologue in act III¸ Dio! Mi potevi scagliar (CD 2 tr. 4). It is sung inwardly deploying beautiful legato yet with deep intensity – a true portrait of an individual who is out of his senses but still tries to keep an image of composure.

Niun mi tema (CD 2 tr. 15) is also a very credible psychological impersonation of a man who too late realises that he has been fooled. He sings Oh! Gloria! Otello fu (Oh Glory! Othello’s day is done) so recessed, so resigned and the pain is so tangible. This is a deeply thought-through reading.

Singers like Gobbi, Taddei, Bacquier and Leiferkus have all drawn memorable portraits of Iago. Leiferkus was possibly the most overtly evil of them. The other three were even more dangerous in that they so skilfully hid their true ego, wrap it in silk and entice their victim with honeyed whispers. Romanian baritone Sebastian Catana belongs in that category as well. His voice has a certain similarity to Piero Cappuccilli, one of the foremost Verdi-singers of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He has the same breath control and excellent legato and has a very expressive way with words. His Credo (CD 1 tr.12) is truly chilling and in the long scene that ends the act, when Iago and Otello are alone, he is venomous: the poison has started to take its toll. His velvet and insinuating Era la notte (CD 1 tr. 19) finally hooks Otello and then he strategically plays his trump card, ‘Il fazzoletto’ (the handkerchief): Quel fazzoletto ieri … lo vidi in man di Cassio (Yesterday I saw that handkerchief in the hand of … Cassio) spitting out ‘Cassio’ triumphantly hissing. This is great theatre and his slight hesitation is perfectly timed.

Italian soprano Raffaella Angeletti’s Desdemona is a real find. She has a beautiful spinto voice in the Tebaldi mould. In the first act duet with Robert Dean Smith the tone tends to spread a little under pressure but she has the same feeling for nuance. In their scene in act II she shows star quality – even more so in the long third act duet Dio ti giocondi (CD 2 tr. 3) where her powerful outbreak has a real Tebaldi ring. After that I was very much looking forward to the Willow Song in act IV, and I wasn’t disappointed. The whole scene was utterly touching and when did I hear a more beautiful Ave Maria?

Luis Dámaso is an excellent Cassio and the remaining cast never let the listener down. The six recordings I listed in the first paragraph will never be redundant and I have another half dozen Otellos that I don’t intend to be separated from either. That said, I am happy to be able to add this newest competitor to my collection and I will certainly play it again very soon.

Göran Forsling