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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 31, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 31
Verdi's Otello fully captured
Arts & Entertainment
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Verdi's Otello fully captured

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

VERDI'S OTELLO
2012 MET LIVE IN HD
BLU-RAY


A few weeks ago, I submitted a review of a vintage Berlin production of Verdi's Otello that berated the show for reducing this masterpiece to cheap melodrama. For the exact opposite, here's a new Blu-ray of the 2012 Met Live in HD event that was broadcast to cinemas around the world. This time every note of Verdi's brilliant score is respected and given its due. The result is thrilling.

Everyone who saw that live show in a local cinema knows what an excellent production it was. The cast is near-perfect. The stage and costumes are beautiful and effective. The famed Met orchestra is at its best under conductor Semyon Bychkov. And the direction by David Kneuss makes the most of the action, especially in the many scenes with full chorus and dancers.

What makes this Blu-ray better than the live transmission (or subsequent telecast on PBS) is the quality of the sound. The several crowd scenes are musically very complex, giving the engineers a big challenge to get the balances right so that every detail can be heard. This Blu-ray disc shows that they succeeded to a degree that was not fully revealed in the cinema or on the HD telecast. There was no limit to Verdi's genius for innovative orchestration, whether for the big moments with full orchestra, chorus and singers or for the more poetic quiet scenes, as in Desdemona's prayers before bed. Here you get it all - almost.

The only flaw in the DTS-HD surround sound is a deficiency in the bottom octave - something one might not notice if we didn't have the superbly recorded RCA discs with Tullio Serafin conducting. On those LPs one was very aware of the constant organ pedal note that underpins the entire opening storm scene and doesn't stop until Otello's entrance. Oddly enough, that pedal note is hardly audible on this Blu-ray, and the bass drum cannon shot that announces the arrival of the Venetian ambassadors is likewise weak. A small flaw, given that everything else has wonderful clarity and impact.

The tenor role of Otello has the most demanding entrance in all of opera. Johan Botha, a giant mountain of a man, makes it look easy and vocally bests any Otello of modern times. His magnificent instrument never fails, and his musical intelligence allows him to sing Verdi's lines in smooth legato, both soft and very loud. His appearance is far from glamorous, but he often manages some effective acting, especially with his expressive, intensely blue eyes. Then again, there are infrequent moments, as when he punishes Cassio, when he forgets to act at all.

Soprano Renée Fleming, now in her fifties, still manages the role very well, both vocally and dramatically, almost making one believe that Botha's Otello is sexy. She doesn't float those high pianissimos quite as well as she did years ago when I saw her in Chicago opposite Ben Heppner's first Otello, but it would be hard to find a better modern Desdemona.

The big surprise in this cast is German Wagnerian baritone Falk Struckmann as a great Iago. This singer obviously studied every detail of Verdi's musical portrayal of supreme villainy, for he misses nary a chance to punch home his evil intensions, using every trill or grace note and Verdi's insinuating rhythms to maximum effect. His voice ain't pretty, nor does the role require vocal beauty, but his acting in both voice and body make him an Iago to cherish and hate. I never saw Tito Gobbi in this role, but vocally Struckmann is nearly his match.

A big bonus is the casting of young tenor Michael Fabiano as Cassio. Fabiano recently sang an unforgettable Rodolfo in Seattle Opera's latest La Boheme. He not only sings supremely well but has the looks and acting chops to go with it. A further measure of the excellent direction of this production is when Cassio is being encouraged to get drunk. The members of the chorus, who are singing along with Iago's drinking song, also sway back and forth in what is both a dance to the music and also a depiction of Cassio's inebriation.

Because this was a Met Live in HD performance, one also gets bonus interviews between soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and Fleming, Botha, Technical Director John Sellars, Michael Fabiano, and Fight Director B.H. Barry. Subtitles are in English, French, or German.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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