The Royal Opera House in London presented its new production of Verdi’s Otello last June. The show’s big attraction was the first performance of the opera’s title role by Jonas Kaufmann. The BBC broadcasted the opening night performance yesterday. The recording will available on its website for a month.
Kaufmann’s dark voice prompted many to wonder, as he ascended the spinto ladder, when he would attempt the pinnacle of the Italian dramatic repertory. He has the baritonal sound needed for Verdi’s Moor. The question was whether he had the intensity and amplitude needed to successfully realize the role. After listening to his first go at Otello I think the question is still partially unanswered. The best Otello I ever heard was that of Mario Del Monaco. He had everything except height, which was about average for a tenor – ie, he was short. His voice was dark, rich, with distinct baritonal overtones. His sound was enormous. No matter how loud the orchestra he could always could be heard. And he had that quality of intensity that aficionados of the corrida de toros call rabioso.
Placido Domingo, the most prominent Otello of his era, had the volume and intensity required for this titanic part. What he lacked was the baritonal sound that Del Monaco had. This lack is what makes his current masquerade as a Verdi baritone so unsuccessful. He doesn’t sound like a baritone. He sounds like what he is, a tenor who’s lost his high notes.
Kaufmann is an extraordinarily gifted and skilled singer. He can be subtle and realize all the nuance inherent in a role. But Otello is not a very nuanced guy. That’s the root of his problem and why he’s so easily manipulated by Iago. Kaufmann, great as he is, may not be the ideal Verdi tenor. His recent encounter with La Forza Del Destino was not entirely successful. He lacks the steely brilliance which characterized Richard Tucker’s and Franco Corelli’s interpretation of Don Alvaro. Similarly, he doesn’t have the full throttle emotional explosion that Del Monaco and Domingo offered when they sang Otello.
Here is Kaufmann’s rendition of Otello’s bravura entrance – Esultate. It’s very good. The grace note high B is well handled. Del Monaco solves its difficulty by omitting it. Abbasso le spade! was also well sung, but did not have the impact of Del Monaco and Domingo. Pappano’s conducting here and elsewhere was tepid compared to that of Carlos Kleiber or even Alberto Erede who led Del Monaco’s mono recording of the complete opera. Obviously, I can’t judge the size of Kaufmann’s voice in this role from a recording. I suspect it was ample enough even if not overpowering.
Kaufmann, of course, sang his part of the love duet with feeling and delicacy, but his sound is soft and somehow not ideal for the part. I don’t want to get too far into the jungle here. Overall his performance was outstanding, better than anyone else now active can do. In this excerpt Kaufmann and baritone Marco Vratogna sing the duet that closes Act 2. Si pel ciel.
Kaufmann will likely continue to sing Otello. Given his intelligence and art his interpretation will likely grow with experience. As for the rest of the RSO cast, competence seems the best descriptor. Soprano Maria Agresta started slowly, but sang the Willow Song and the Ave Maria in the 4th Act with considerable effect. Vratogna’s Iago was suitably malevolent, though his voice is gruff. Pappano’s conducting could have used more fire and force.
You can form your own opinion by listening to the entire opera using the link above or via this one: Kaufmann Otello 2017.