Any new “Otello” recording is usually the focus of major
The Verdi and Boito opera is undeniably one
of the pinnacle works in the standard repertory, encompassing a
vast array of emotional colors with some of the greatest music
humankind has ever conjured up. And the world has seen some
truly legendary recordings over the past century with some of
the greatest interpreters in the three lead roles.
all know that when an “Otello” recording is released into the
market, the number one question on everyone’s mind revolves
around the tenor taking on the lead role.
This role is
the Mount Everest of tenor repertory, to use a well-mentioned
cliché. But what’s fascinating is that it isn’t one of the
hardest roles in the opera world for the reasons people think it
is. Sure, it requires a titanic voice that can blast out with a
vengeance when the titular hero implodes emotionally and
mentally over the course of the work. And many great tenors on
record have managed this requirement quite well, none moreso
than Ramón Vinay or Mario Del Monaco.
But Otello is
actually challenging because more than having a tenor blast his
sound for two hours, Verdi actually has Otello straddle a line
between that extreme and another – piannisimo singing. This is
where most interpreters fall short unable to sustain that
dichotomy in the musical language. A look through the score will
reveal more piano passages than forte ones, suggesting that
Verdi really wanted Otello’s heroism to be demonstrated not just
by his power, but by his grace.
Some tenors that have
managed this balance quite well over the years would include Jon
Vickers and even Plácido Domingo.
Then there’s Jonas
Kaufmann, the subject of this review (his face dominating the
main cover of the album, dwarfing even the title).
Kaufmann is arguably one of the most magnetic
artists singing today (while also being one of the most
controversial for his constant bouts of cancelations). His
magnetism derives from not only his movie star looks, but his
technical precision and control which allows him to do seemingly
anything with his voice. When at his very best, you feel that
you are safe in Kaufmann’s hands and that his voice will take
you wherever he wants you to go without the slightest indication
of difficulty. That isn’t to say that what he is doing isn’t
difficult, but that he makes it sound easy.
And this is
perhaps the greatest trait of this recording from that
standpoint. From a musical perspective, you would be
hard-pressed to find a recording of this opera that is so
layered and nuanced in its phrasing.
This is particularly
apparent in the most lyrical passages where Kaufmann’s signature
piano singing is able to work its magic. “Gia nella notte densa”
is particularly inspired in this regard, the passage gloriously
sung with an elegance and poise that many other Otellos with
heavier voices simply can’t manage. The final high A flat on
“Venere splende” is delicately emitted, expressing Otello’s
gentle nature at its most captivating.
of this kind of delicate singing is undeniably “Dio mi potevi”
where the tenor very rarely pushes the dynamics of his voice too
far before the climactic moments of the aria. And while he
imbues the opening phrases with a bitterness on “calma fronte,”
he manages to express Otello’s deep suffering in one of the most
captivating moments in the entire recording – a glorious
diminunendo on the four-bar phrase “e rasegnato al volere del
ciel” sung with one expansive, beautiful legato phrase on a
single breath. It’s a moment of pure musical and dramatic
tension coupled with vocal virtuosity that will undoubtedly make
you rewind just to hear it once more.
A similarly elegant
approach is given in “Niun mi tema” where Kaufmann manages truly
wondrous contrasts between the dark and heavy colors of the
opening stanza before shifting to a muted and weeping “E tu,
come sei palida,” the latter passage heart-wrenching in how
Kaufmann caresses every single word and note with utmost
His coloring of the “Dio ti gioconda” is
particularly breathtaking. On the opening line, the voice grows
darker and one slowly feels hints of accents here and there,
giving off a sense that Otello’s ready to burst out in anger at
any moment. At the end of the duet, when he returns to this
melody, he goes for a more gentle tone, but you can also feel a
sarcastic bite on such words as “il mio pensiero č fello;” this
underlying harshness makes the forte ascension to a high C on
“quella vil cortigiana” all the more inevitable and exciting.
It’s an effect that a lot of tenors manage with a harsher and
more accented approach in the phrasing, but Kaufmann’s more
subtle shading and shift from pure tenderness to fury sting all
But it’s in the interstitial passages that
Kaufmann often manages his greatest interpretive magic. Just
listen to how he extends the phrase “Č il fazzoletto ch’io le
diedi, pegno primo d’amor.” It’s an extremely slow tempo, but in
its expansion and Kaufmann’s soft and pained singing, one feels
Otello’s last hopes slipping away with every note he sings. It’s
one of the most painful moments to listen to in this recording.
Same goes for an earlier “Perchč fai tale inchiesta,” which
exposes a deep concern with a softening of the tone from robust
And at the end of the third Act, he delivers
“Anima mia” with a smooth legato imbued with an arid color that
really drives home this feeling that he could strangle Desdemona
here and now.
But what of the more intense moments that
require vocal power and command?
The initial passages,
“Esultate” and “Abbasso le spade” are delivered with vocal
intensity and power that showcases Otello’s poise and strength,
every word precise in its delivery.
The building of
Otello’s rage throughout the second Act is always punctuated
with some mesmerizing high Bs and B flats, the vibrato expansive
and full, especially at the close of “Ora ed per sempre addio”
and at the climax of “Si pel ciel.”
He meshes extremely
well in the duets and other ensembles, with his Act three
confrontation with Desdemona a particular standout. Emotionally,
it feels like the climax of the entire interpretation and there
is perhaps no more explosive moment in the entire recording than
the ferocity of Kaufmann’s accent on “Giura e ti danna!” From
there it’s a sparring match with soprano Federica Lombardi with
Kaufmann building up an equally aggressive “Che? non sei forse
una vil cortigiana?” After this duet, it feels like Otello grows
colder and more distant in his fury, perfectly exemplified in
the final duet with Desdemona, during which Kaufmann pulls back
a bit in volume before slowly allowing Otello’s rage to build on
the repeated “Nos,” which he delivers with a particularly unique
inflection. His “Č tardi” is as intense as Kaufmann’s almost
manages the intensity of the “Giura e ti danna!”
Listening to the album multiple times and honing on Kaufmann’s
take, there is no doubt that this is a very thoroughly prepared
and intelligent interpretation that heavily reveres and trusts
the score. It’s still very much a Kaufmann interpretation with
his signature vocal affects, but it’s all in the service of what
Verdi delineated musically back in 1887.
That said, for all of that incredible musicianship and
virtuosity, one does occasionally feel a cautious control in
much of Kaufmann’s vocal approach, leading to some of the most
dramatically intense moments being somewhat restrained in their
impact. As a listener, many of those beats lack the feeling of
emotional spontaneity that gives them dramatic life.
After “Ora e per sempre addio (which, by the way, is the only
moment in the entire recording where the tenor’s execution of
the rhythms is noticeably sloppy and his voice sounds somewhat
unsettled before making a heroic recovery on the final notes),
Verdi offers the audience one of the most fascinating musical
visions of confusion and rage boiling through a rising
chromaticism in the orchestra. It builds and builds until
exploding into violence whereupon Iago shouts for “Divina grazia
Throughout the preceding passage, Otello’s
rage builds and builds before he attacks Iago. And while
Kaufmann manages the appropriate affects musically for the
passage (clear articulation on every word and accents on the
final triplets and quarter notes), you never really feel that
his rage is boiling over and exploding in line with the
orchestra’s crescendo. He doesn’t hit a wrong note or sing a
phrase out of rhythm, but he doesn’t provide the emotional
The same goes for Otello’s other big explosive
moment at the end of the third act when alone, he succumbs to an
epileptic seizure. Obviously one doesn’t expect the singing to
become unintelligible or sloppy (though to be fair James
McCracken did manage to make gold out of this approach, if your
taste appreciates that), but Kaufmann, while certainly
suggesting Otello’s weakening throughout the passage and imbuing
the phrase with edge and accentuation, doesn’t manage to employ
sufficient contrast throughout the passage to really give a
clearer emotional progression.
Of course, one cannot
overlook one fundamental fact – this is a studio recording where
an artist must interpret passages several times on a day.
Fatigue is very much a factor in this and there is no doubt
that, especially in a role like this, a singer might be wont to
not put it all on the line in one take. This isn’t the theater
where you get one shot per night and you don’t want to miss it.
You have multiple shots and sometimes, the best ones don’t make
the record for a wide range of different reasons. Then there’s
the issue of when and how this is recorded. Again, we are not
privy to which order or passages were recorded when and how and
how that might affect a singer (this particularly plays a part
in another singer’s interpretation) and his or her approach.
Ultimately, I think it is safe to say that, on the whole,
Kaufmann’s interpretation rarely ever misses even if it does
feel there are a few things lacking here and there. It is is a
very nuanced reading, perhaps moreso than any other commercial
studio recording out there. And to be honest, after several
listens in preparing this review, it grows on you more and more
as you slowly let go of what you hoped to hear when you first
approach it and start to discover what it has to offer.
Other Side of the Spectrum
While Kaufmann’s performance feels
very much in control, for the most part, soprano Federica
Lombardi’s is the complete opposite. You often don’t know what
to expect from her. The reason for this comes from the very
beginning of her first entrance when her approach, more than
assertive, seems technically and musically questionable. Her
first notes “Mio superbo guerriero” feature an unsettled vibrato
that leads to some questionable intonation throughout. The high
A flat on “Soavi” at the apex of the phrase audibly changes
pitch mid-note; it might be forgivable in a live performance,
but in a studio recording it is frustrating.
makes a very strident first entrance in Act two when, after
hearing a very subdued and dream-like approach to “Dove guardi
splendono,” the G sharp on “Splende il cielo” comes out airy and
unfocused before the ensuing F sharp is heavily accented with
wide vibrato, as is the rest of the phrase; it might be a
splicing issue but it definitely feels out of place, making the
phrase decidedly NOT the dolcissimo that the score calls for. It
also simply makes Desdemona emerge from this angelic chorus as
musically out of place. The high B natural at the apex of this
passage before the quartet also sounds overly forced with
This wide and often unsteady vibrato is
a staple of her singing throughout the recording and in quieter
passages, she seems to struggle to sustain the steadiness of
pitch, especially on the highest of notes, such as the final A
flat of the “Ave Maria,” which while sung pianissimo sounds airy
To be fair, repeat listens suggest that a
lot of this has to do with how the splicing and editing of the
recording was executed, with Lombardi perhaps the most
negatively affected by the process. Still, you can only go on
what is offered and it often doesn’t help her.
to say that Lombardi doesn’t impress in other moments and it’s
impossible to not point out that her diction is without any
doubt the most clear and precise of the trio of lead singers.
She can sing some truly elegant delicate lines, especially
in the final scene when it’s all about her. Both the Willow Song
and “Ave Maria” are sung with delicacy, the former with a
melancholy ready to burst out with pain, an opportunity she
amply takes at its climax when she delivers a heart-wrenching
high A sharp.” The “Ave Maria” meanwhile features some of her
finest legato singing with great precision in the middle
register. You can feel Desdemona’s struggles slowly dissipate as
she finds an inner peace, the sound growing warmer and more
tender by the moment.
“Dio ti gioconda sposo” is also
luxuriously sung, the soprano seemingly at her most poised in
these opening lines. But its what happens afterward when she
meets tęte-ŕ-tęte with her husband that you really feel
Lombardi’s strongest contributions. She matches Kaufmann blow
for blow, defending herself quite potently. Even if her vibrato
on the highest notes might be a bit unwieldy for some, there is
no doubt that in the dramatic context it fits seamlessly; you
can feel Desdemona coming undone.
She is similarly
effective in the concertato where her voice is given free reign
to soar over the ensemble. And again, the edgier qualities of
her singing depict a woman coming undone emotionally in the
midst of a crisis she never anticipated. The intensity in these
particular scenes make the more cautious and internalized vocal
approach of the final Act all the more resonant.
Then there’s Carlos Álvarez, who delivers arguably the
finest track on the entire album with his “Credo in un dio
crudel.” With studio recordings, there are often those moments
when you are listening to something you have heard countless
times before and you stop and rewind. Sometimes there is
something that is off about the performance, but every so often
there is something truly fascinating about what you just heard
and have to hear again. It’s almost like you are discovering the
piece once anew.
That is exactly what happens with the
opening lines of the famed “Credo.” Alvarez, who to this point
in the recording has delivered a rather elegant exploration of
the character, suddenly turns up the intensity of his voice by
widening the vibrato, his sound acquiring an edge and power that
it had not had to that point. Iago sings a sequence of C
naturals followed by D naturals, rising up to an E flat,
Alvarez’s vibrato widening, almost becoming one with the
underlying trills without any pitch instability; moreover, he
delivers the opening phrase in one breath all the way to “Simile
a se,” every single syllable clear but also swept up in a
glorious legato. Just like that you have the devil wrapped up in
a noble quality showing up precision and control in the most
exciting of manners.
And coupled with the second half of
the phrase, which climaxes with the baritone blasting everything
he has on that final E flat on “Nomo,” this opening is so full
of tension vocally and musically, that it becomes hard to top in
the remainder of the aria (and recording for that matter). And
yet somehow, he manages to find a way to do that.
is constantly biting at the text throughout the “Credo,”
creating menace, bitterness, and wry sarcasm throughout this
emblematic text. All the high notes are delivered with assurance
and poise, showing off his raw power. It’s almost like he’s at
battle with every word and you can feel every blow he delivers
with increasing strength. At the end, hhe feigns dread and
anguish with each passing “E poi?,” until he victoriously erupts
on the final “Č vecchia fola il Ciel.”
He shows a similar
finesse for exposing his malicious intent during “Temete,
signor, la gelosia!” wherein his voice takes on very soft
complexion, growing coarser and more accented with each passing
phrase, climaxing in a very aggressive trill. You can feel the
fangs coming out.
These passages are contrasted by a more
elegant approach in other lines, Álvarez’s Iago coming off as
noble and heroic as Kaufmann’s Otello. The entire drinking song
“Inaffia l’ugola! Trinca, tracanna” is pulled off with bravura,
climaxing in increasingly potent and thrilling high high As.
Same goes for the trio, particularly in the flighty “Questa č
una ragna,” where every syllable and note is spot on.
Conversely, “Era la notte” rivals Kaufmann and Lombardi’s most
beautiful piano lines, the legato silky and polished. There’s a
thrill in his slender piannissimo singing during ““Desdemona
soave! Il nostro amor s’asconda.” The aria seems to build in
volume with the mirroring ““Il rio destino impreco” sung with a
more full-bodied sound; some of the edits detract from the
performance, but ultimately, the aria is wonderfully crafted,
allowing for a fantastic transition into the act’s final
moments. You feel like Iago, with each phrase building in sound
and strength is goading Otello toward his established
destination, building the stakes more and more.
is a veteran in this role and if you have followed his most
recent recordings, there is an increasing sense of growth and
development with regards to his interpretation of this role. The
ideal recording (and that’s assuming you only get one) is that
which crystallizes an artist’s most mature approach to a role.
This is undeniably the case with Álvarez.
remaining cast members, tenor Liparit Avetisyan’s sweeter timbre
provides a perfect counterpoint to Kaufmann’s more baritonal
colors. There’s a gentle quality to his singing that is
particularly evident in “Miracolo vago dell’aspo e dell’ago” and
especially the concertato, where the mixing of the recording
favors him for large portions.
The remaining players,
including Carlo Bosi as Rodrigo, Riccardo Fassi as Lodovico, and
Virginie Verrez as Emilia, manage their roles solidly.
Then there’s the Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia
Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, which one could argue steal the show
outright from all the soloists.
The Chorus is vibrant
throughout and there is an excellent balance in the mixing of
the different sections. This is most evident in the loudest
moments, such as their first entrance in Act three where the
voices rise up as one in tremendously glorious harmony. The same
goes for the opening storm where the explosive prayer just
knocks it out of the park as the first track on the album.
But it’s in “Dove guardi splendono” where this cohesion
makes it mark. Usually a passage dominated by the higher voices
to the detriment of the other sections, the sound mixing
actually balances all the sections quite well, resulting in the
emergence of a softer and delicate musical color. It’s a subtle
touch, but it alters the feeling of the entire passage.
Then there’s the orchestra, which feels very much like a major
player the entire album. Maestro Antonio Pappano has definitely
been sharpening his interpretation, which moves into very
aggressive territory throughout. The strings, in particular,
benefit from this approach with Pappano pushing them to the
brink in the upper reaches of the chorus entrance in Act three;
you could almost hear the bows slashing against the bridge of
the violins on the E string. It’s a gritty sound but
exhilarating nonetheless. Pappano offers up a similar effect as
the violins peak during “Si pel ciel (something that the von
Karajan recording with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi also
does extremely well).
During “Ora ed per sempre,” Verdi
gives the violins mezzo-forte triplets on “Addio, vessillo.” You
probably won’t even notice this little score detail in most
recordings, but Pappano’s more present violins in this
particular moment add to the intensity of the passage.
But these little subtleties are not limited to just the string
section. In the run-up to the Act two quartet, Desdemona’s
statements are punctuated by fortissimo dissonance in the
woodwinds; it’s not like other conductors ignore them in other
recordings, but they have a greater presence in this one,
enhancing the discomfort they are meant to produce in the scene.
Another notable aspect of this recording is the incredible
balance across the different sections. Pappano has a deft
understanding of when to let the brass instruments take over and
when it might be better to let them blend in with the overall
instrumental tapestry. One of the reasons that the opening of
the “Credo” is as imposing as it is, Álvarez aside, is how you
can hear the force of every section integrated into one potent
sound. In most recordings or performances, the brass and
woodwinds take centerstage, to the detriment of the strings (a
lot of conductors today tend toward this brass and wind heavy
approach to Verdi’s operas, often resulting in a banda-like
texture that undercuts the intensity of his music). But here,
the presence of the strings gives the chorus an edge that
strengthens the effect. Moreover, the trills underlying Iago’s
opening statement also get greater harshness from the string and
wind sounds being balanced as well as they are.
isn’t to say that he doesn’t understand when to let one section
dominate the other, as is the case with the codas for both Act
two and three, where the brass instruments reign supreme to
The tempo choices are recognizable in
comparison to what one hears in most other performances of the
opera, though he does allow some bandwidth to his singers to
really stretch some phrases (Kaufmann’s “Il primo pegno” in Act
two is a perfect example) for emotional effect. And he also
slows down the Act three prelude, allowing the “Jealousy” melody
to build greater tension throughout.
These kind of
musical details are layered throughout the reading. They never
feel intrusive or self-serving, but actually add to the dramatic
intention of the music. Again, it’s one of those aspects of the
recording that has you going back again and again to have
another listen. The playing isn’t without errors (some violin
runs are sloppy here and there in Act two), but in those notable
mistakes the recording also seems to come alive in a way that a
lot of recordings simply don’t.
The sound engineering has
been mentioned intermittently throughout the review and for the
most part Sony has done an excellent job. The overall sound
quality is vibrant and alive, balanced and perfectly inline with
the nuance the performers bring to their interpretations. As
mentioned, there are moments where the editing of different
takes together gets fudged, affecting some performers, such as
Lombardi, more than others.
Ultimately, there will be a
lot of people that already have their favorite “Otello”
recordings and nothing this one does will sway you away from
those. But there is no denying that in an era where the studio
recording of opera is an endangered species, this is the kind of
gift that you can’t overlook.
It’s clear that the artists
involved, despite their varying degrees of success, put a lot of
care and thought into this work and the result is undeniably
memorable. As far as modern recordings of this opera go in the
last 30 years, this is one of the better ones.