Jonas Kaufmann sang the title role Otello for the first time in 2017. The venue was London’s Royal Opera House. Antonio Pappano conducted then as he does on the CD of Verdi’s masterpiece issued earlier this year by Sony . Both tenor and conductor seemed to have a slightly tenuous grasp of Verdi’s penultimate opera in 2017. This go around they are fully in control.
Otello is famous for the demands it makes on the tenor. Performing the title role onstage in front of an audience is quite different from making a recording. There are no do overs in the opera house. In a studio mistakes can be corrected and vocal stamina is not an issue. There are very few new studio recordings of the standard operas. They all have been released on CDs or vinyl many times during the past half century. The economics of the recording industry is against studio made operas. Only the presence of a very big star in a challenging role can induce Sony and its like to spend the money required to put an opera on a disc that’s not taken from a live performance. Kaufmann is one of just two or three opera singers who can justify a big recording budget.
To fully realize Otello a tenor needs more than clarion tones, but a trumpet and visceral excitement will carry the day even in the absence of subtlety. The best Otello I ever heard was Mario del Monaco. Restraint and nuance were not in his arsenal. But so powerful and intense was his portrayal of Verdi’s jealousy possessed generalissimo that the audience was swept away.
Kaufmann, at least on the basis of this recording, has now fully realized this most challenging of Italian tenor roles. His dark baritonal timbre is perfect for the Moor. His high notes have squillo. He observes all of Verdi’s markings. He emphasizes Otello’s nobility. This is especially true of the great love duet that closes Act 1. The wild animal ferocity that Del Monaco unleashed is purposely not part of Kauffman’s reading. The late Italian tenor sounds the same on the two recordings he made of the opera as he did in the house. Whether Kaufmann will match his performance on these disc if he gets another chance at the role before an audience is impossible to say. His singing of the great third act monologue of despair Dio! mi potevi scagliar is a perfect representation of his conception of Otello.
Kaufmann is matched by the powerful Iago of the Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez. He is suave, believable, and ordinary as Verdi wished him to be. No one would suspect him of being the psychopath he is. He eschews the gratuitous laugh at the end of the Credo. Verdi’s production notes for the opera directs Iago after the final words to shrug his shoulders, turn away, and move upstage. Álvarez matches Kaufmann’s excellence throughout the opera giving explanation to Verdi’s initial inclination to the call the work Iago. About the only negative I can find is that he seems to be farther from the microphone(s) than Kaufmann.
The remaining principal role Desdemona, opera’s most abused wife – was given to the young Italian soprano Federica Lombardi. She’s the weak link in this recording. She’s a lyric soprano who vocal production is unsteady, sometimes to the point of fluttering. A lyric soprano can sing this role, but a more appealing sound than Lombardi can currently muster is need to fully realize this important role.
The comprimario singers all performed competently. This leaves the orchestra and chorus. Maestro Pappano got an average reading from the ROH Orchestra and Chorus three years ago. Nothing better than would be heard at a provincial Italian or German house. He seems to have had time to rethink his work with Verdi’s score. The orchestral and choral parts trace their ancestry back almost a half century. The score of Nabucco has much DNA in common with that of Otello, but evolution has added a lot more than fully erect posture. The intricacy, passion, and sophistication that the old composer put into this opera is matched only by the same qualities that he inserted into his next and last opera – Falstaff. Verdi did not mellow as he aged; he just got better.
Pappano leading the forces of the Academy of St Cecilia was up to the task this time . His conception of the opera matched that of Kaufmann – subtle and explosive. But if terribilita is what’s wanted, he doesn’t go that far. Otello is such a great work, that more than one version should be in the listener’s library. This embodiment is worth inclusion with about four or five others. The opera is too grand to ever have a completely definitive version.