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Notes and Editorial Reviews
James Levine, cond; Jon Vickers (
); Renata Scotto (
); Cornell MacNeil (
); Metropolitan Op Ch & O
MET OPERA 88697 91012 9 (DVD: 144:00
Text and Translation) Live: New York 9/25/1978
I feel very confident in saying that we will not encounter a performance of
like this again in our lifetimes. I mean that in terms of its traditional style, where the staging actually seems to want to reflect what is in the libretto and the music, and I also mean it in terms of performance quality. If Mario del Monaco was the quintessential Italian Otello of the second half of the 20th century, and Plácido Domingo perhaps the most musical and successful from a purely vocal viewpoint in the post-del Monaco period, Jon Vickers was the most totally effective from both a musical and dramatic point of view.
Despite an unusual vocal production, one perhaps more suited to Wagner than to Verdi in terms of its basic sound, Vickers convinced completely as Otello not only because of his complete identification with the character, but his innate sense of how to shape the music and how to fit his unique vocal qualities to the Verdi line. Vickers was always superb at playing tortured, complex characters (Peter Grimes and Canio being two other examples), and his Otello gave us everything in the character—his tenderness, his sweetness to Desdemona, his rage and his power. We see how Iago’s poison works its way into Otello through Vickers’s face, and we hear it in his remarkable variety of vocal color. I have never encountered an Otello, on disc or in the house, capable of shading the voice with such subtlety and with such a range. The other two recordings Vickers made of this role do not compare favorably with this one. The Karajan performance with Freni and Glossop, available both in CD and DVD form, is fussy and over-managed by conductor and tenor, and Glossop is not vocally up to the role of Iago. The RCA recording with Rysanek and Gobbi, led by a too-old Serafin, never really gets off the ground, and Rysanek is not your ideal Desdemona. This performance represents Vickers at his considerable best in this role.
Part of the reason for his success is that he is surrounded by excellence everywhere. Cornell MacNeil may not have the juice in his voice that his great predecessor Leonard Warren did, but MacNeil has power to spare, and shows here a wonderful dramatic sense. His facial expressions and gestures, in big moments and also in the throwaway moments that most baritones ignore, are always telling. I wish he sang “Era la notte” with a bit more of a hushed tone, but aside from that he applies an effective range of dynamics and intensity, and we would kill to have a baritone in the Verdi repertoire today who sounded like this.
Renata Scotto is heard (and seen) here in her prime—she was 44 in 1978. I grew up on Tebaldi in this role in the 1950s, so my standard is a high one, and Scotto doesn’t disappoint. She does not have the plushness of timbre that Tebaldi did (no one did), but she does bring a more specific sense of reacting to the words in some places, and she does float some gorgeous
What the above words do not convey is the degree to which this is a true ensemble performance. Characters actually interact with each other, and no one seems to be playing to the audience. And this was in the early years of Met telecasts, when there was nothing special planned for the presence of the cameras. This is a single live Met performance, captured by cameras in the house as it happened. The original production was by Franco Zeffirelli, who also designed the sets. Peter Hall did the costumes and Gil Wechsler the lighting, and in this revival of the Zeffirelli Fabrizio Melano directed. All of those people deserve some credit for the theatrical impact of the performance, but if I had to give credit to a single person, it would be James Levine. If you doubted that he was one of the great Verdi conductors of our era, this performance will sweep the doubt away. The full range of this remarkable score is here—the power, the fury, the warmth and tenderness of the love music, the grandeur and the intimacy. There is not a single passage that sounds as if Levine is just beating time; everything gets his full energy and attention, and everything is given its appropriate place in the whole.
Kirk Browning’s direction for the cameras is sensitive and knowing. He is willing at times to linger on one view, and his work for the most part resonates perfectly with the score and the drama. He does seem caught a few times when the stage is too dark to be captured by the cameras, but that comes with the territory in live TV when the format is relatively new. The two-channel stereo sound is occasionally uneven, with singers seeming to move in and out of mike-presence (sometimes even when they aren’t moving physically).
Overall, this DVD offers you the ability to experience Verdi’s
in a sweeping performance that combines the singing, the orchestra, and the drama brilliantly. If this opera is important to you, this performance is something that you must experience. One has to be careful not to overuse powerful words, but in this case “thrilling” is the only apt description.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Works on This Recording
Otello by Giuseppe Verdi
Cornell MacNeil (Baritone),
Jon Vickers (Tenor),
Renata Scotto (Soprano)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Written: 1887; Italy
Date of Recording: September 25, 1978
Venue: Metropolitan Opera, New York
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
An Otello of the ages. July 12, 2014
By Francisco J. (Pennsauken, NJ) See All My Reviews
"Verdi would be proud of and endorse this performance. With the two leading roles, maybe even Macneil as well, being "past their prime," one would question the quality. And yet Vickers & Scotto give a performance that will be watched and listened to for many years to come. Perhaps a great credit should go to Maestro James Levine, a true master of this incredible score. If you don't have a DVD of Otello, this should be a strong consideration. If you do have one or perhaps two DVDs of Otello, this one is still worth adding to your library."