Verdi: Otello. © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment

CD Spotlight

Out of the Ordinary

a new recording of Verdi's 'Otello'

'... a new and beautiful reading ...'


At the beginning of the summer, while civilised society and the world of music in particular are reopening following the pandemic, Sony Classical is releasing an important new CD. It represents an extraordinary event in the etymological meaning of the term - 'out-of-the-ordinary': a studio recording of an opera, not a CD based on live performances retouched by skilled sound engineers, and an innovative reading of Verdi's masterpiece Otello.

To the best of my memory, before this Otello, the last major studio recording was Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, produced in 2003 by EMI Classics, with Plácido Domingo and Nina Stimme as protagonists and Antonio Pappano at the helm of the Royal Opera House complexes. The artistic outcome was excellent but the cost was such that The Economist prophesied that this would have been the last time an opera would be recorded in a studio. The prophecy has largely come true, mostly thanks to the technology that allows 'cleaning up' of recordings of various live performances to obtain a CD without background noise or other imperfections.

However, Michele Dall'Ongaro, President of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia and Music Director Antonio Pappano took up the challenge and convinced Sony to produce a studio recording of a major opera. They had an ace up their sleeves: the recording debut of Jonas Kaufmann in the taxing role. (He had debuted it on stage at the Royal Opera House in London in 2017. There is a live DVD, acoustically much less fascinating than this new CD.) There are round and perfect sounds here, like those taught at the beginning of stereophony, by John Culshaw: a prodigy of technique, but also of artists. The sound engineer for this CD is Jakob Händel.

Listen — Verdi: Esulate! (Otello Act I)
(CD1 track 2, 0:00-0:44) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

Three years after his debut in the role, Kaufmann's Otello is even more 'out of the ordinary'. It gives me the same impression that I had at the Old Vic in 1966 for Shakespeare's tragedy, played by Laurence Olivier. (I was a student and could only afford only standing room places - a struggle for this four hour performance.) This is a different Otello (even compared to those of Del Monaco, Cossutta, Domingo and Pavarotti, only to mention the best known on recordings, as well as Atlantov and Galouzine on stage) because Kaufmann emphasises introspection as the key feature of the role. On a CD there is, of course, no stage action, but the tension of introspection is all in the singing: there is no lack of treble as in Esulate! (CD1 track 2) but primarily the tension is in the phrasing, in the mezze voci already in the duet that concludes the first act - Già nella notte densa - until the heartbreaking finale - Niun mi tema ... un bacio, un bacio ancor.

Listen — Verdi: Già nella notte densa (Otello Act I)
(CD1 track 9, 0:36-1:34) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

Listen — Verdi: Niun mi tema (Otello Act II)
(CD2 track 24, 3:34-4:34) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

Kaufmann's legato is excellent too. At fifty-one, he introduces us to a manly but fragile Otello that falls into the net prepared by Jago. At the same time, this is a new and beautiful reading, like that by Laurence Olivier fifty four years ago on stage. This reading gives Boito's masterly libretto its due.

Kaufmann/Otello's Desdemona is the young Federica Lombardi, who I heard at the Lombardy Opera Circuit, at La Scala and at the Opera House in Rome, mainly in Mozart or belcanto roles. This is the first time I've heard her sing Verdi. Hers is a Desdemona sweet and innocent since the duet of the first act, but which gives off all its purity in the quartet of Act II - Se inconscia contro te, sposo, ho peccato - and in the Act IV Ave Maria. Her emission is perfect, confirming that she is a great lyrical soprano.

Listen — Verdi: Se inconscia contro te, sposo, ho peccato (Otello Act II)
(CD1 track 17, 0:00-0:59) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

Listen — Verdi: Ave Maria, piena di grazia (Otello Act IV)
(CD2 track 20, 0:30-1:22) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

Jago is Carlos Álvarez, a Spanish baritone veteran of the role. I heard him in this part in Genoa and several years ago in Salzburg. His Credo in un Dio crudel is a very manicured piece of devilish skill.

Listen — Verdi: Credo in un Dio crudel (Otello Act II)
(CD1 track 12, 0:00-0:50) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

He is sneaky in the duet with Otello Ciò m'accora (CD1 track 14) in which he sports mezza voce.

Emilia (Virginie Verrez), Cassio (Liparit Avetisyan), Rodrigo (Carlo Bosi), Lodovico (Riccardo Fassi), Montano (Fabrizio Beggi) and the Herald (Gian Paolo Fiocchi) are all high quality professionals.

Antonio Pappano conducts the orchestra and choir (led by Ciro Visco) of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia with passion and accentuating the tensions of the score as well as highlighting how Verdi had assimilated part of Wagnerian innovations and, in 1887, anticipated what would be the new twentieth century 'drama in music'. The Santa Cecilia orchestra is more accustomed to symphonies than operas. This fits the Wagnerian reading very well. Among the many gems is the choral introduction of the second act trio - Dove guardi splendono - where the children's sweet and delicate voices open up to the crux of the tragedy.

Listen — Verdi: Dove guardi splendono (Otello)
(CD1 track 15, 0:08-1:07) © 2020 JAK GmbH and Sony Music Entertainment :

In short, this is a CD to listen to several times over, to appreciate all the finesse.

Copyright © 17 June 2020 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy






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