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Blu-ray Review

Giuseppe Verdi

Unitel/C Major Blu-ray 740104

Otello

  • Otello - José Cura
  • Desdemona - Dorothea Röschmann
  • Iago - Carlos Alvarez
  • Cassio - Benjamin Bernheim
  • Emilia - Christa Mayer
  • Lodovico - Georg Zeppenfeld
  • Rodrigo - Bror Magnus Tødenes
  • Montano - Csaba Szegedi
  • Araldo - Gordon Bintner
Staatskapelle Orchestra Dresden/Christian Thielemann
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Extra Chorus of the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Chorus Master/Jörn Hinnerk Andresen
Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor
Chorus Master/Wolfgang Götz
Stage Director - Vincent Boussard
Set Designer - Vincent Lemaire
Costume Designer - Christian Lacroix
Lighting Designer - Guido Levi
Recorded Live at the Salzburg Easter Festival March 16-27, 2016
Unitel/C Major Blu-ray OABD7041OD 740104 2:27:16 PCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan
Also available on DVD OA0963D: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan

This is the fourth video recording of Verdi's Otello that I have reviewed here at Classical Net. In 2003 I dealt with the first of the four when I covered the Teatro alla Scala production featuring Placido Domingo and Barbara Frittoli in the leads with Riccardo Muti conducting on a TDK DVD. That was an excellent performance and since then the others for which I wrote notices were also very impressive. I'll list them all below, including a fifth video (featuring José Cura), with commentary and comparisons. I cannot think of another opera off hand that has gotten better treatment on video in this century. Thus, this Salzburg Easter Festival Otello, led by Christian Thielemann, recorded in March, 2016, goes up against very formidable competition.

Like most major operatic productions today, this one by Vincent Boussard takes a few liberties with the work. Costuming, for example, features a mixture of period and modern attire: Iago wears a modern-day tie, vest and fur collar coat and Otello's garb is equally current-day, while Desdemona, Cassio and others wear clothes one can identify with the Renaissance era. The sets are rather sparse and abstract, obviously designed to create a timeless sense in their barren and indistinct look. There is an angel of death character appearing throughout the opera, often intrusively (at least to me), and the lighting (or lack of lighting) throughout the production creates a consistently dark and shadowy atmosphere.

Thus, the hazy visual effects play into the timelessness aspect, as does the mixture of Renaissance-era and modern costuming. Boussard seems to be expressing that the story is as valid today as it was in Shakespeare's time, that it is universal for all time. No argument there, but his means to that end will be regarded with a measure of controversy. Indeed, many operaphiles will happily embrace his visually and psychologically dark take on the story, while others will find it a bit drab and unrelentingly narrow in its focus.

One aspect of this performance that isn't controversial is the singing – it's quite impressive straight down through the cast. Dorothea Röschmann makes a thoroughly convincing and sympathetic Desdemona. She is in splendid voice throughout and her dramatic skills are equally effective: notice the intensity and conviction she imparts to the music in Act IV's Willow Song (Mia madre aveva una povera ancella) and the ensuing Ave Maria, piena di grazia. Try also the First Act Quando naravi l'esule tua vita, where she sings with such passion and beauty. In this same number you will also hear Cura deliver subtly nuanced and quite arresting singing of his own. They both turn in tension-filled and quite moving performances as well in Dio ti giocondi, o sposo, from the Third Act. Carlos Alvarez as Iago is totally convincing. He is an Iago whom you will love to hate and whose singing you will love to love: try his First Act Esultate! L'orgoglio musulmano which he sings with both subtlety and gusto.

The rest of the cast is fine and Christian Thielemann leads the proceedings with a fine grasp on Verdi's style, drawing vital performances from the orchestra, chorus and even the children's chorus. The end results from Thielemann are a little surprising to me as I associated him with the German sphere – Wagner, Beethoven, Bruckner and Richard Strauss, all composers he has had great success with in the past. This is his first foray into Verdi, at least on record. In fact, as far as I can determine, he hasn't previously recorded any Italian opera. So his success here is unexpected, frankly, at least to me. Will he take on Puccini next? Or look eastward to Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev?

The other Otellos that I have reviewed here are these: the  aforementioned Teatro alla Scala production on TDK (TDK DVD DVOPOTEL); the Teatro la Fenice production featuring Gregory Kunde and Carmella Remigio in the leads on a Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray (Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray); and the Met production from 2012 featuring Renée Fleming and Johan Botha in the leads and Semyon Bychkov conducting on a Decca Blu-ray disc (London Blu-ray 438923). I also mentioned Cura's other Otello, which was recorded in 2006 from the Teatro del Liceu on an Opus Arte DVD. Of these I slightly favor the Met version with Fleming, though all of them are worthy of attention, each with its own strengths. The question is now, how does this new Otello stack up against the others, particularly the Met version? Quite well, I must say. Fleming and Röschmann are hard to choose between but I'll give a razor-thin edge to Fleming. Cura, however, takes honors over Johan Botha, the Met's Otello, but Falk Struckmann must be given the edge for his excellent Iago over Alvarez. The Met production is also more colorful and lavish, but I believe Thielemann's conducting may be a little more spirited than Bychkov's. So it comes down to this: if you favor a darker and more modern take on this opera, go for this new version on C Major. Otherwise, choose the Met version. Actually, in either case, you can't go wrong. Verdi and opera mavens will want both.

Robert Cummings