Otello


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OTELLO

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Arrigo Boito

Based on the play by William Shakespeare

First Produced: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1887

Present Company: Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, 2006

Original Production: La Monnaie De Munt, Brussels

Director: Willy Decker

Sets & Costumes: John Macfarlane

Lighting: David Finn

Video Director: Ángel Luis Ramírez

Orchestra of the Gran Teatro del Liceu

Conductor: Antoni Ros-Marbà

 

Cast:

Otello: José Cura

Iago: Lado Ataneli

Desdemona: Krassimira Stoyanova

Cassio: Vittorio Grigolo

Emilia: Ketevan Kemoklidze

Roderigo: Vicenç Esteve Madrid

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 41.41 GB

Bit Rate: High (32~40 Mbps)

Italian PCM MA 5.0

Italian PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, Italian, French, Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 140 minutes

Opus Arte 2009

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A-

Casting: A

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: C

Image: A-

Audio: A-

Extras Features: C+

Recommendation: A-


 

Comment

With such memorables as La Traviata, Rigoletto, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, Don Carlo and his Requiem Mass behind him, Giuseppe could well have retired altogether after Aida in 1871 – and at age 58 he more or less did just that, but the bug bit once – make that twice – more, with two operas that would become arguably his greatest (save possibly Traviata).  Otello in 1887 and Falstaff in 1893, his only operas from Shakespeare and the only ones with libretti by another opera composer of opera: Arrigo Boito, whose Mefistofele had premiered in 1868.


        

 

Boito’s scenario begins with the third scene of the play: Otello’s triumphal return to Venice after defeating the Turks.  In short order he introduces all the principal players including the subplot in which Iago plays on Rodrigo’s affection for Desdemona in order to make use of him as he will in the final act.  In short order, we learn that Iago despises Otello not only because he felt he was passed over in favor of a lesser man: Cassio, Otello’s fair-haired captain, not only because Otello is an outsider and a Moor, but that he can’t help himself to act on man’s basest instincts.  We also see that Desdemona adores Otello – she eloped with him against her father’s wishes, after all.  There is fire between them, but class, race and temperament divides them, making Otello easy prey to Iago’s whispering insinuations of Desdemona faithlessness.


        

 

The genius of Iago’s plan is to implicate his rival Cassio as the object of her infidelity. He depends on Otello’s jealousy and the fact that, aside from himself, Cassio and Desdemona, Otello has no friends in Venice – no one but his own insecurities to give him counsel.  Cassio and Desdemona, for their part, are innocent to a fault and never suspect that Otello’s sudden rages against them are anything other than seizures, an idea that stage director Wily Decker comes close to overplaying.

 

As masterful as were Verdi’s earlier operas, by the time of Otello and Falstaff, he had reached a new level of compositional authority that I don’t think could have been predicted.  There are leitmotif influences of Wagner – notably the “kiss’ motif that ends the first and last acts – but more significant is that these last operas are through-composed without architectural signposts that articulate aria from plot and character development.  Iago’s Credo, Otello and desdemona’s big love duet at the end of Act 1 and Desdemona’s prayerful monologue that comprises half of the final act seem to start and end without our having realized it.


        

 

The emotional level of Verdi’s music is fever pitch from start to finish – like Falstaff, Otello has no Prelude or Overture – even when it is as quiet as a feather drop.  His characterizations of the individual players are so well drawn we could recognize them with our eyes closed.  But our eyes are not closed, nor would we want them to be . . . which leads us to the 2006 Gran Teatro del Liceu production in Barcelona, with its dramatically raked stage in two directions, striking lighting and eye-popping costumery. 


A not inconsiderable part of the action takes place in deep shadow, which is where Iago is in his element.  The video is not helped by the fact that both Iago and Otello wear dark tunics.  Cura’s Otello takes off his upper body garments to show a white shirt, creating even more trouble for the video engineer, whose sensors shudder at the mere thought of such an extended contrast range in the same frame.  Elsewhere on the stage there are huge swathes of strong light that move about across crowds of people, accentuate this or that piece of subplot.  One difficulty is that cameras looking at the same scene from different vantage points do not always see the light values the same way, so that apparent over- or under-exposure sneaks in at times.  The final challenge is presented in the third act by the huge mirror against which Iago arranges for Cassio to be overheard by Otello and for the Moor to accuse his wife.  The problem isn’t how to obscure the camera’s reflection but the orchestra’s.  Obscured though they are in partial shadow, the light over their music stands worms their way into the frame now and again.  Not content with this insult we find that one of the cameras has a fault such that the far right of the frame in wide angle is out of focus.  (see this screencap)


        


And now for the good news: the casting is convincing, the singing persuasive, and our emotional involvement rarely loses focus.  In this production it is Iago, not Otello, who grabs our attention from the get-go.  Lado Ataneli is a large man with strong features who puts me in mind of a gangster, or perhaps a restauranteur, which in some circles is the same thing.  The opening bars reveal, not throngs of citizens awaiting the arrival of Otello, but Iago alone in show, in a posture that challenges God - and why not?  It is some while before his first line, but from that moment when his voice rises above the clamor, we know he will be a force to be reckoned with.  His only challenge, as it is with Cura is the razed stage, whose incline is so steep that the actors don’t so much walk, as creep.


Krassimira Stoyanova’s Desdemona is pitch perfect in every way.  She implores and caresses with equal conviction.  If anyone could persuade Otello of her innocence it would be she, but alas he is too far gone for an angel.  The final act is hers with one of the most delicate, peaceful Willow Songs and Ave’s I’ve ever heard.  Our heart aches for what we know must happen, yet just as I can watch Titanic for the third time and now how it comes out, I hope for some way to save the ship.  Vittorio Grigolo’s Cassio is a man drunk with the belief that being Otello’s favorite shields him from any imputation.  He sings well, too.


        


I have come across critical comments on-line about José that accuse him of shouting.  I am inclined to think that these listeners are prisoners of a less than adequate audio playback system - by which I do not mean that theirs are underpowered.  Quite the contrary.  Mine is only 25 watts, yet Cura’s most maxed out top never shatters or is anything less than powerful and musical.  Not that I am without complaint about him, but it lies elsewhere, specifically in how he moves between different volume levels and registers, where he could be two different singers.  Doesn’t work for me.  Neither do I find his instrument particularly engaging, unlike Vickers whose ringing voice could cut through any orchestral fabric right through to the heart, or Del Monaco, who could have problems with control now and then, but owns the role at so any levels.  It was Del Monaco who not only introduced me to live opera in 1959 but to Otello specifically.  Mae no mistake, Cura had me in thrall: he looks and acts the part and sings it with a passion and conviction that is frankly a little scary.  We fear for Desdemona from the moment he takes the stage.


        


The audio is very good, yielding plenty of punch for the opening storm and all the bittersweet angst needed for Desdemona’s prayer.  Instrumental timbres and textures are properly reproduced, without spotlighting.  Balances with the stage voices, which are always clear and well projected, are correctly managed, as are the voices between each other regardless of location.  The triangle twirling gets mangled, but then it nearly always does (something about unresolvable differences in arrival times - I hear it often enough in live concerts.)

 

Bonus: Introduction in SD (5:45), with comments by Joan Matabosch, artistic director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and José Cura who discuss the title character and the religious identity of Venice, symbolized by the Cross, which retains our focus on the stage at all times.  Cura’s observations are particularly insightful.  Also included are an Illustrated Synopsis and Opus Arte’s usual excellent dual-language 32-page booklet.


        


Barcelona’s Teatro del Liceu is responsible for this lavish production of Verdi’s masterpiece, Otello.  The cast is superb, set design and costumes are lavish, the lighting striking, if problematic, and the orchestra plays with all its heart.  Opus Arte’s video transfer keeps the noise at a minimum even in the shadows where a good deal of the action plays out.  Colors are vivid, yet under control.  Artifacts are minimal, if present at all.  This Otello is an emotional powerhouse.  You’ll want to give it your full attention.  Recommended.



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 12, 2012



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