The Metropolitan Opera on DVD – Verdi’s Otello – Jon Vickers, Renata Scotto, Cornell MacNeil / Zeffirelli / Levine [Sony Classical]

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Verdi
Otello – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare’s Othello [sung in Italian with English subtitles]

Otello – Jon Vickers
Iago – Cornell MacNeil
Desdemona – Renata Scotto
Cassio – Raymond Gibbs
Emilia – Jean Kraft
Rodrigo – Andrea Velis
Montano – Robert Goodloe
Lodovico – James Morris
A Herald – Arthur Thompson

Chorus & Orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera
James Levine

Original Director / Set Designer – Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Designer – Peter J. Hall
Lighting Designer – Gil Wechsler
Stage Director – Fabrizio Melano

Recorded on 25 September 1978 at The Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Video Director – Kirk Browning


Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: October 2011
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88697910129 [DVD]
Duration: 2 hours 23 minutes

 

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A vista of murky images and dry orchestral sound do little to inspire confidence at the opening bars; but be patient, for what emerges through gloom is a stupendous performance of Verdi’s greatest opera. The spectacular set pieces of Franco Zeffirelli’s classic staging are barely discernible in this primitive telecast from 1978, but that matters little when the artistry is so extraordinary – magnificent, even, in places. James Levine paces the score with urgency and passion; nothing is ever rushed yet he allows the opera’s heart of darkness to pump its blood with relentless, curdling power.

As might be expected, in video terms it is the intimate scenes that communicate most vividly. The performance itself is electrifying at such moments: the oath of hatred and vengeance at the close of Act Two finds Cornell MacNeil and Jon Vickers in fierce alliance as Iago and Otello, while the third-act confrontation between Vickers and Renata Scotto’s sublimely tragic Desdemona is barely watchable for its unblinking portrayal of blind cruelty.

When he filmed Otello for the cinema, some eight years later, it was Plácido Domingo whom Zeffirelli cast as the Moor. Here, though, the far-from-Italianate voice of Vickers is matchless in a reading that approaches Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in its dramatic character. The intensity that Verdi and Boito invest in the title role is meat and drink to the Canadian: he growls with rage as he prowls the stage, for all the world a dramatic bass-baritone in tenor attire. Just occasionally Vickers slips into the unfortunate nasal crooning that could sometimes mar his quieter singing, but such moments are rare. This Otello is overcome not by jealousy but grief; since the Desdemona he loves is dead to him from the moment his treacherous ensign first assaults his ear with verbal poison.

The late Cornell MacNeil (who died in July 2011 at the age of 88) sings a mean Iago, but the camera is not kind to his limited dramatic range. Eyes glued to Levine’s baton, that full, dark voice cutting through the densest ensemble, this dependable house regular was a Met dream for the conductor but a less-than-subtle stage presence. Still, his ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ (I believe in a cruel God) is utterly chilling. Scotto, by contrast, breaks the heart with her melting soprano (her voice was at its peerless peak in 1978) and her supreme ability to inhabit a role. Desdemona’s silent reactions to Otello’s accusations in Act Three are dazzling in their fusion of subtlety, complexity and incipient tragedy, while her ‘Willow Song’ in the final Act is less a Canzone than the naked portrait of a doomed woman’s turmoil. Scotto is unforgettable. Indeed, between them, she, Vickers and Levine created an occasion of great art on that September day back in 1978, and we are fortunate to have it preserved.

The supporting performances are uniformly good, in particular James Morris (later to become a formidable Iago himself) who makes something out of nothing as Lodovico and Jean Kraft who does likewise as the loyal Emilia. As for the camerawork, the technical means may be limited but the attention to detail is commendable. During the complex ensemble finale to Act Three, for example, Kirk Browning has the wit to identify Iago’s contribution as the one that propels the plot, so he focuses on him throughout. Overall, though, the muddy images are an undeniable distraction, whereas a CD release of this memorable matinee would compete from the front of the field. One day, perhaps.

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