Antonio Pappano's performances of Verdi's Otello at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, have been magnificent. Time and time again, Pappano has demonstrated his affinity with this composer; his performances in late 2019, albeit with a different cast from this recording apart from a shared Iago in Carlos Álvarez, were stunning (see my review). This recording documents the very height of Pappano's achievement. Joined by Jonas Kaufmann in fine form, Carlos Álvarez as a powerfully manipulative Iago, Otello's ensign and the opera's engine of evil, and Federica Lombardi as Desdemona, this is a magnificent achievement.
Verdi's great drama - which he called a "lyical drama," in Italian a "Dramma lirico" - was first performed in Milan in 1882. It's his penultimate opera: the very different Falstaff, a deliciously frothy, masterly comedy, was the only one left to follow on. As such, Otello represents Verdi at the very height of his creative powers. Although the opera's subject is itself intimidating (it was, after all, written by Shakespeare), Verdi was not the first great Italian composer to take it on. In 1816, Rossini wrote his Otello, rarely heard these days, although there is an impressive modern recording courtesy of the ever-enterprising Opera Rara.
Verdi's setting is fierce and uncompromising. It grabs us and never lets go, taking in extremes of emotions, from overwhelming evil to the most gentle love duet. Try the opening scene in this recording, the orchestra ablaze. Set in Cyprius at the end of the 15th Century, a violent storm rages at sea. The crowd, Venetian citizens and soldiers, watch and comment in one ofthe most viscerally involving musical invocations of a storm in all music. Out of this comes one of the most exciting tenor entries in all opera, as Otello sings "Esultate" ("Rejoice!"). And so is launched a story that takes in, on one level, intrigue and one of the blackest of characters, Iago, and one of the tenderest and tangled of love stories, that of Otello and Desdemona.
Pappano most recently conducted the piece at Covent Garden, which I reviewed for Seen and Heard International in December 2019 (click here for review). Only one major character in the cast was the same, but it was a vital one, that of Iago, sung by Carlos Álvarez. He is defined by his twisted ways, and Álvarez' so-called "Credo" ("Credo in un Dio crudel!"; "I believe in a cruel God") embodies this absolutely. But the cruellest part vocally is that of Otello himself; Kaufmann felt the pull in 2001 when singing the role of Cassio at Chicago's Lyric Opera to Ben Heppner's Otello, and the rest is history. He has shown his mettle in waiting for the right time to give the World his Otello, a wisdom opera singers would do well to note. His performance is remarkable, worth every second of the wait. This video gives a taste of Kaufmann in Otello, singing "Dio! mi potevi" from the third act :
Of course Kaufmann follows in the footsteps of great Otellos from Giovanni Martinelli (one thinks of the February 1940 Met performane with Rethberg) to Plácido Domingo (try the DG recording wih Chung for state-of -art sonics and great Verdi). Kaufmann gives us an Otello for today, every bit as valid and impressive as his illustrious predecessors.
The Desdemona here is the young Federica Lombardi, magnificent in the final act, delivering a truly hushed "Ave Maria". To get the flavour of Lombardi's voice, albeit in a very different opera, here she is from the Bavarian State Opera in 2017 as the Countess in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, singing "Dove sono":
It is Desdemona who creates the magic of the opera's final quarter; Lombardi is a fabulous Desdemona; mouthwatering sound, radiant presence. But of course, it is Otello himself who has the final word. As Kaufmann sings the words "Niun mi tema" ("Would you dare?") we feel the beginning of the end in the heaviness of the orchestra, and as Otello sings, as part of the famous last lines in Act IV, "Un bacio, ancor un bacio" ("A kiss, another kiss"), the music dies away unforgettably.
Recorded at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome in spectacular sound, this is more than a complement to the DVD and Bluray of the Covent Garden performances in 2017 when Kaufmnan gave his first performances of the role (incidentally the day of the first performance of that run, June 21, 2017, was the hottest day in London for some 176 years). This new Sony recording took fourteen sessions spread over a fortnight; the results, in their immediacy, offer an experience to remind us all of the power, and importance, of not only Verdi;'s Otello, but opera per se.