Opera, July 2018
Verdi: Otello

This performance took place on 28 June 2017—a week after the eagerly awaited opening of the Covent Garden production reviewed by John Allison last August and features Jonas Kaufmann at his highly individual best in this latest addition to his repertoire. It's an addition that is arguably more congenial than other iconic Verdi roles such as Manrico and Radames (first performed in 2013 and 2015 respectively) to a singer who has long cultivated the dark-hued tone that is traditionally associated with Otello and who is at his best as an actor when revealing a degree of psychological imbalance in even the most self-confident heroes: an imbalance that is of course an integral part of the composer's (and Shakespeare's) conception of the Moor. Kaufmann seems less comfortable with the triumphant heroism of the man of arms ('Esultate!'), but his upper register is more resoundingly anchored than Placido Domingo's usually was in the opening solo, and both the microphone placement and the camerawork make it easier for him to dominate the stage on video than when observed from a distance in a 2200-seat theatre.

Kaufmann's exceptional musicality makes itself felt throughout the opera in a manner that has been rarely equalled in the history of recording. His long-breathed legato phrasing is as refined as that of a chamber musician, and an occasional dullness of timbre is amply camouflaged by the vast range of dynamics called imaginatively into play. And while his lowered-larynx voice production makes it impassible for him to bring each syllable of Boito's text stirringly to life, as the role's creator Francesco Tamagno did on early acoustic recordings, the diction is nonetheless free from artifice and nobly sculpted in a manner that matches the handsome profile and stage deportment of a singer whose skin is only slightly darkened in Keith Warner's production. The vulnerability of this Otello lies not so much in his ethnic otherness as in his emotional ingenuousness, which lends a refreshingly romantic (rather than sensually knowing) aura to the love duet in Act I . Another highlight is the Act 3 monologue, delivered with a quiet inwardness of expression that compels attention: this Otello is never entirely alienated from his higher self and his downward progress rightly engenders an ever-deepening sense of pity.

As Desdemona, Maria Agresta proves on the whole a worthy partner for Kaufmann, singing with attractively vibrant tone and admirable technical control. In close-up her face lacks the radiant innocence that can establish the character as a force for good just as Iago is a force for evil, but as the drama unfolds one comes to appreciate the complexity of feeling that the Italian soprano manages to convey and her vocal mastery of both the Act 3 finale and the Willow Song in Act 4, where she has strong support from Kai Rüütel's Emilia.

Marco Vratogna has always seemed at his best in villainous roles and the theatrical efficiency of his Iago withstands the scrutiny of the cameras rather well: his manner may be melodramatic (Warner underlines the ensign's role as stage manager of the action), but his eyes reveal real malignancy. In vocal terms he commands a wide range of dynamics and projects words vividly, but lacks the ease of legato and stratified richness of tone needed to capture fully the insinuating subtlety of Verdi's music.
The production focuses unobtrusively on the interplay of the three principal characters. Bruno Poet's lighting is particularly effective and the time and place of the action are sufficiently established—without any fuss—to enable the meaning of the words to resonate fully. The supporting characters are seldom thrown into relief, and Frédéric Antoun's Cassio is weakened by overuse of head resonance, but the action devised for them (and for the chorus) is plausible and Warner's only serious miscalculation is the excess of gore that distractingly accompanies Otello's suicide.

The recording is spacious. detailed and natural in sound, allowing for unalloyed enjoyment of the superb orchestral and choral performances under Antonio Pappano, who here rivals Carlos Kleiber in his commanding grasp of the score's architecture, his acute sensitivity to the blending of words and music and the sheer theatrical excitement he generates from the opening storm onwards.


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