Otello – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare’s Othello [sung in Italian]
Otello – Simon O’Neill
Iago – Gerald Finley
Desdemona – Anne Schwanewilms
Cassio – Allan Clayton
Emilia – Eufemia Tufano
Rodrigo – Ben Johnson
Montano – Matthew Rose
Lodovico – Alexander Tsymbaluk
A Herald – Lukas Jacobski
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded 1-6 December 2009 in Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: November 2010
CD No: LSO LIVE
LSO0700 (2 SACDs)
Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes
About a year ago, a couple of lukewarm reviews provided me with a shred of consolation for having missed one of the LSO’s concert performances (on 3 & 6 December 2009) of Verdi’s masterpiece, not least because Torsten Kerl in the title-role had been replaced at a day’s notice by Simon O’Neill.
Well, you can’t go to everything, but now I know that it would have been a privilege to have been present at what was clearly a special event. And the impact of this recording is all the more surprising since the two leads were making their role debuts, and that the whole project was under the baton of an octogenarian, conducting with the verve and passion of a man half his age.
The opening storm (here without the organ) in “Otello” cannot fail to make an impact, but Colin Davis went much further, making this centrifuge of doom-laden energy into a secular ‘Dies irae’, providing just the right sort of grandeur for the short-lived triumph of the Moor’s “Esultate”, Simon O’Neill slapping down his Otello credentials in a way that brooks no argument. O’Neill has studied the role with Plácido Domingo, and some may miss a baritonal quality to O’Neill’s voice, but in the context of Gerald Finley’s non-bass baritone, O’Neill’s ringing Heldentenor made complete sense, the two voices literally raising the characters’ game.
Again, some of the reviews noted that the two leads stayed close to their music-stands. There is no sense of that in this recording, with Finley and O’Neill sounding completely inside their roles, with an intensity and spontaneity you’d be privileged to get in a fully-staged performance. Both singers act with their voices, Otello’s doubts audibly growing before our ears’ eyes, with O’Neill delivering the sort of performance that adds to the listener’s understanding of the role. Just try the Act One love-scene and then hear how the character of his voice changes from Act Two onwards – it is masterly and subtle.
Gerald Finley doesn’t really do melodramatic baritone blackness, but his reading of Iago is no less powerful, with an extraordinarily vivid ‘Credo’, full of contempt and emptiness. For anyone transfixed by the idea of evil as amoral pointlessness, then Finley is your man, giving us an Iago of blank, bleak eloquence, full of smooth, sinuous loathing. By the way, if ever you want to explore further the nature of evil, you could do worse than try Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel “Lolly Willowes”, in its way as compelling a realisation of the black hole into which Otello and Iago fall.
With the two leads in such sharp focus, Anne Schwanewilms’s Desdemona, radiantly sung and with a particularly poignant ‘Willow Song’, becomes something of a central-casting victim, essential to the plot but not inside her role to the extent of Otello and Iago, and also not as Italianate. The two tenors, Allan Clayton and Ben Johnson, are well cast as Cassio and Roderigo respectively – and very well sung; and there is a very effective Emilia from Eufemia Tufano.
Colin Davis’s conducting is nothing short of miraculous, with an attention to detail that pulls you into the music, which is superbly played by the LSO, yet with an overview of the whole that is full of insight and which, quite simply, is alive; and the London Symphony Chorus is on blistering form. Highly recommended.