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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello, tragic opera in four acts [137.14]
Otello – José Cura
Desdemona – Dorothea Röschmann
Iago – Carlos Álvarez
Cassio – Benjamin Bernheim
Emilia – Christa Mayer
Roderigo – Bror Magnus Todenes
Lodovico – Georg Zeppenfeld
Montano – Csaba Szegedi
Herald – Gordon Bintner
Angel – Sofia Pintzou
Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor/Wolfgang Götz (chorus master)
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Extrachor der Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Jörn Hinnerk Andresen (chorus master)
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Stage Direction – Vincent Boussard
rec. live, 16-27 March 2016, Osterfestspiele Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus, Austria
C MAJOR 740104 Blu-ray [147 mins]

Filmed at the 2016 Osterfestpiele Salzburg this new Vincent Boussard staging of Verdi’s Otello had a challenging start. Owing to serious illness tenor Johan Botha in title role and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Iago both withdrew. Argentine tenor José Cura and Carlos Álvarez both highly experienced in the roles stepped into the breach.

Verdi held an enduring passion for the works of William Shakespeare. In collaboration with librettist Arrigo Boito his final two operas Otello and Falstaff, based on Shakespeare plays, are widely regarded as twin summits of Italian opera tradition. Verdi was persuaded to come out of his comfortable retirement when Arrigo Boito showed him the enticing Otello libretto. First performed in 1887 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan Otello was a resounding success with an appeal that has long endured with audiences and critics alike as demonstrated here by this new production at the 2016 Osterfestspiele Salzburg.

Behind this new Otello is Vincent Boussard the renowned French stage director who according to the notes “integrates video with set and lighting design to create an idealized visual context” for what Boussard describes as “Otello’s conflict of ancient and modern, of 2D and 3D.” Boussard and his creative team, set designer Vincent Lemaire and lighting designer Guido Levi have chosen a staging that is dark and severe both visually and in characterization. Instead of covering the large stage with an old, traditional elaborate design it is left mainly bare relying on blank flats and a range of drops onto which somewhat nondescript images, such as a giant outline of a hand, are projected singly. In fact a recurring feature is a large billowing net curtain close to the front of the stage probably intending to represent something like a women’s veil or sailcloth swelled by sea wind or surging ocean waves but in truth looking more like a muddle. Much more could have been made visually of the opening storm scene which disappointed here and can often be a dramatic visual spectacle; the same could be said for Otello’s fleet of ships and the Willow Song too. There is little in the way of props provided. Sticking in the memory however from act three is the long dining table replete with lit candles. A curious idea is to make Desdemona’s bedchamber in act four into a small white coloured alcove with a doorway in the centre that looks into darkness but there is no bed. A wedding dress is suspended over the door on a coat hanger. The real ray of light and one of the few points of reference to the opera’s original setting of late fifteenth century Cyprus are the period costumes by Christian Lacroix. As one might expect from this renowned fashion designer Lacroix’s costumes are predominantly colourful, unwaveringly elegant in design and beautifully decorative. Sadly Levi’s lighting scheme keeps everything in near darkness with Lacroix’s costumes virtually imperceptible to the eye unless the principal characters, or very occasionally the chorus, are being spotlit often to visually stunning effect. Something of a questionable benefit Boussard has created a new non-speaking character a black (or dark grey coloured) Angel, who is a regular and prominent presence and in one scene carries a flame.

Verdi’s wonderful music and Boito’s remarkable libretto together with the expressive talents of the cast and fortuitously the dark coloured austerity of the staging come together to add to the overall tension creating a sense of conspiracy and stifling claustrophobia. José Cura gives a persuasive portrayal in the challenging role of Otello the red-blooded Moorish General. Although the subject of some press criticism I find Cura a compelling figure in one of the most significant roles in all opera for an acting singer. Possibly to underline the leading character’s outsider status Boussard and Lacroix have conspired to dress Otello most plainly in contrast with the rest of the cast. This notion backfires, serving to make him look more like a servant rather than the illustrious General of the Venetian forces. Mercifully Cura hasn’t been blacked-up as the Moor like he has in the past and which still happens today in some productions of the opera. Impressive is the tenor’s darkish and weighty low range in a role where so much expression is required rather like Sigmund in Die Walküre. Cura’s tone is not perfect especially in his high register which can be uneven with some discernible strain but his capacity for communication is striking. Convincing is how much Cura makes of this tempestuous character with marked emotional insecurities that eventually overwhelm him, descending into total despair.

In the role of Desdemona Dorothea Röschmann demonstrates that there is much more to her than a Mozart specialist of renown. I have seen more vulnerable Desdemonas who submissively take all the husband’s false accusations of her suspected infidelity. Invariably seen dressed in an ornate white gown together with a preposterous blonde wig Röschmann’s stiff acting is less notable here than her creditable singing. Whilst her creamily voice may not be as flexible at the top these days she is able to generate passages of real emotional intensity. Making a considerable impression as the cigarette smoking Iago is Carlos Álvarez the believably malevolent and dangerously conspiratorial ensign who is fervently plotting. Decked out in an elaborately patterned blue frock coat with brown fur collar Álvarez delivers a firm deep baritone with good diction however he maintains a weighty projection throughout often at the expense of subtlety. Bror Magnus Todenes as the gentleman Roderigo does well displaying his steady bright tenor to considerable effect. As Cassio, Otello’s captain Benjamin Bernheim demonstrates his agreeable tenor which is ably projected. Christa Mayer playing Emilia, wife of Iago and Desdemona’s maid, does all that is asked of her as does Georg Zeppenfeld steadfast in the role of Lodovico the top hatted ambassador.

The large mixed chorus of the Salzburger Festspiele and Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden wear beautifully designed clothing so striking I can still visualise the adults dressed in striking red and black cassocks with white ruffs. Singing with expressive fervour the choirs are in fine unified voice and the eighteen strong children’s choir too have been clearly well rehearsed. Under the baton of festival music director Christian Thielemann things keep moving with assurance and his Staatskapelle Dresden play with all their usual level of thrilling commitment.

As I have come to expect, the video direction of Tiziano Mancini is excellent with a reasonable variety of shots ensuring the eye doesn’t tire. In the accompanying booklet there is a helpful track listing and Karina Saligmann has written a short essay and synopsis. It’s a shame there is no bonus video footage provided, namely interviews with the principals and Vincent Boussard’s creative team. Clear and well balanced the stereo and surround sound options are well caught by the engineering team.

This 2016 Osterfestspiele Salzburg production in cooperation with the Semperoper Dresden is a dramatic experience that gradually draws the listener in. I was due to see this Boussard staging in Dresden last month but with great regret I had to cancel owing to illness.

With José Cura, Dorothea Röschmann and Carlos Álvarez in such fine form the feeling of engagement and artistic integrity is striking in Vincent Boussard’s new production of Verdi’s grand masterpiece.

Michael Cookson

Other production & recording details:
Stage Direction – Vincent Boussard
Set design: Vincent Lemaire
Costume design – Christian Lacroix
Lighting – Guido Levi
Video direction – Tiziano Mancini
Picture format 1080i - 16.9 - Filmed in High Definition
Sound formats:
a) Stereo LPCM 2.0ch, 48kHz/24 bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch, 48kHz
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean



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