06 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – OTELLO (A. Antonenko, K. Stoyanova, C. Guelfi, J. F. Gatell, M. Spyres, E. Owens; CSO Resound, CSOR 901 1301)

Giuseppe Verdi: OTELLO (CSO Resound CSOR 901 1301)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Otello—A. Antonenko (Otello), K. Stoyanova (Desdemona), C. Guelfi (Iago), B. di Castri (Emilia), J. F. Gatell (Cassio), M. Spyres (Roderigo), P. Battaglia (Montano), E. Owens (Lodovico), D. Govertsen (Herald); Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Children’s Choir; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, Chicago, Illinois, on 7, 9, and 12 April 2011; CSO Resound, CSOR 901 1301; 2CD (also available in SACD format), 136:03; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, directly from CSO, and major music retailers]

In the 2013 World Cup of Opera, with its dueling Bicentennials, Germany seems to have advanced to a considerable lead over Italy.  With widely-discussed releases by labels large and small, documenting the work of respected conductors past and present, the works of Wagner have enjoyed greater prominence in the recent discography than those of his fellow milestone celebrant, Verdi.  Considering the essentially lyric, Italianate core of the basic training to which young singers are subjected, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that there are now more Wagner singers deserving to be recorded than there are similarly-meritorious Verdi singers, but perhaps there is at least a modicum of validity to this supposition.  Few singers display an affinity for Verdi repertory comparable to Nina Stemme's suitability for Wagner's heroines, for example, and the lion's share of truly world-class operatic portrayals in recent seasons—Eric Owens's Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera's Robert Lepage Ring, for instance—have been created in Wagner repertory.  The operas of Verdi nonetheless remain the foundation upon which the seasons of virtually every major opera house are built, even if the performances ultimately are inadequately sung.  There are seasons at theatres beyond Germany and Austria in which there is nary a Wagner opera to be found, but a season in any of the world's larger repertory companies without a production of Rigoletto, La Traviata, or Il Trovatore is unusual.  To the lover of Verdi's operas disappointed by the paucity of good-quality recordings released in celebration of the birthday boy from Busseto and to those wearied by half-hearted performances of Italian repertory in general, this recording of Otello by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti is cause for rejoicing.  The performance on this recording, captured in sound of demonstration quality by engineers of the Orchestra's house label, is a precious instance of all members of a large musical team being fit, focused, and dedicated to the task of making music at the highest possible level of excellence.  Every kick in this Otello does not find the net, but it scores several pulse-quickening goals for Team Italy.

The personnel of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to recording microphones.  Under the leadership of Sir Georg Solti, CSO's operatic outings were often recorded, either in concert or in studio, including a controversial 'live' recording (taken from concert performances and ‘patch’ sessions in Chicago and New York) of Otello in which the title rôle was sung for the only times in his career by Luciano Pavarotti.  CSO forces also hold the distinction of having participated in the first fully digital recording of a complete opera, Beethoven's Fidelio with Hildegard Behrens.  The storied traditions of superb musicianship by both the Chicago Symphony's choristers and instrumentalists are gloriously upheld in this performance of Otello.  In the opera's opening scene, the terror of the Venetian populace is powerfully conveyed by the choral singing, which never loses its intensity or admirable clarity of ensemble.  Well-trained and amply-rehearsed choral singing has ever been a reliable aspect of Chicago Symphony performances, and both the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus sing strongly and with unflagging dramatic energy under the direction of Duain Wolfe.  The ladies' singing shimmers with poise, femininity, and an attractive element of aloofness—these are refined, pious ladies among preening courtiers and rough-hewn mariners, after all—in their exchanges with Desdemona, and the men's depictions of those conspirators and seamen are equally credible.  The youngsters of the Chicago Children’s Choir, prepared by Josephine Lee, sing with professionalism that belies their youth, charmingly extolling Desdemona’s virtue and seeking her favor.  The CSO players also make a fantastic showing.  On the whole, Verdi does not receive the respect that he deserves for the intelligence and innate dramatic sense of his orchestrations, particularly in his later operas: from the first note of the score, the orchestra is a vital participant in Otello, not merely an accompanist.  The tempest with which the opera opens receives a ferocious performance from the CSO, and throughout the performance the instrumentalists impress with moment after moment of extraordinary playing.  Strings, woodwinds, and brass all play superbly, and the exposed passages for harp and mandolin are executed better than on almost any other recording.  The conducting of Maestro Muti merits much of the credit for the overall effectiveness of this recording.  Having proved a divisive figure in some of his endeavors, Maestro Muti proves himself through his conducting of the performances recorded by CSO Resound to be one of the few conductors active today in possession of a legitimately idiomatic command of Verdi’s music.  Under Maestro Muti’s baton, it is apparent that Otello is the work of a composer whose career spanned the entire spectrum of 19th-Century Italian opera, from bel canto—and, however much listeners allergic to the music of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti wish to deny it, there are delicious remnants of bel canto in Otello, not least in Desdemona’s music in Act Four—to the strongest stirrings of Romanticism.  Maestro Muti’s conducting also leaves no doubt that Otello is an opera that premiered less than thirteen years before the turn of the 20th Century.  Hard-edged passages like those that open the opera and depict Otello’s bending to Iago’s insinuations in Act Two mingle organically with lyrical scenes like the celebrated Love Duet in Act One, the ‘cello-led introduction to which is gorgeously played, and Desdemona’s innocent pleading for intercession for the falsely-maligned Cassio.  Pacing the performance with the sure hand of absolute acquaintance with the score’s shifting moods, Maestro Muti here conducts one of the finest recordings of his career.

If the value of a performance of Otello were decided solely on the merits of its supporting cast, this recording would soar to preeminence in the opera's discography.  To the gifted Barbara di Castri falls the unenviable task of balancing Emilia's devotion to her mistress, Desdemona, with her position as the consort of the duplicitous Iago.  Though she has little more to do, musically, than Flora in Traviata or Ines in Trovatore, Emilia has a sharper dramatic profile than these ladies, and Ms. di Castri seizes every opportunity offered to her, singing committedly and with attractive femininity.  Otherwise, the environment in which the fates of Desdemona and Otello play out is dominated by testosterone.  The Herald of David Govertsen and Montano of Paolo Battaglia are strong performances.  Having Eric Owens on hand as Lodovico is an exceptional luxury, and every line that he sings bristles with intelligence and the excitement of the visceral impact of his granitic voice.  Interestingly, Lodovico has fared very well on records, but no one has sung the rôle more engagingly than Mr. Owens.  Much the same can be asserted about the tenor rôles of Cassio and Roderigo.  The former part is taken delightfully by Juan Francisco Gatell, a frequent collaborator with Maestro Muti.  More often encountered in Mozart repertory and the early 19th-Century music for which Maestro Muti is so zealous an advocate, Mr. Gatell finds in Cassio a Verdi rôle that, like Fenton in Falstaff, is ideal for his voice.  His light, almost boyish timbre makes Cassio an even more than usually sympathetic figure, his innocence never doubted.  For lovely, ringing tone, Michael Spyres's singing as Roderigo could not be improved.  A fantastic interpreter of the title rôle in Rossini's Otello, Mr. Spyres does not face similar bravura hurdles in Roderigo’s music, but the simpler vocal lines allow the beauty of his tone to glisten all the more.  Dramatically, he projects every quality required of an ideal Roderigo.

The most chilling Iagos are those who connive with charm rather than blunt force, and in that regard this performance loses a bit of ground.  From his first entrance in Act One, Carlo Guelfi’s Iago veritably trembles with menace.  This is a valid interpretation of the rôle, of course, but it leaves little room for the sort of disclosure of the character’s ambiguities that deepened the psychology of an Iago such as Tito Gobbi’s.  Still, it is now relatively rare to hear an Italian baritone in the part, and Mr. Guelfi’s verbal fleetness produces many moments of frighteningly-conveyed malevolence.  The famous ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ in Act Two is broadly sung, but here and elsewhere in his performance Mr. Guelfi’s upper register is prone to spreading.  The basic timbre of the voice is pewter-hued, which limits the extent to which Mr. Guelfi can alter the colorations of his tone in order to reflect the ever-changing aspects of Iago’s public and private personas.  Neither Shakespeare nor Verdi makes explicit the true motivations for Iago’s malfeasance: political maneuvering is certainly an important aspect of Iago’s actions, but destruction such as Iago instigates is rarely born merely of politics.  Racism is implied as potently in Otello as it is directly depicted in The Merchant of Venice, but missing from Arrigo Boito’s libretto are Shakespeare’s suggestions—likely Iago’s inventions—that Otello seduced Emilia prior to his clandestine marriage to Desdemona.  Nevertheless, Verdi’s music seeks the inspiration for Iago’s bitterness where any Italian might first explore: the heart.  Whether or not Iago physically desires Desdemona, there can be little doubt that, considering that he regards his own wife as property, he covets Otello’s possession of her.  Mr. Guelfi’s Iago bullies more than he beguiles but is ultimately an effective if unvarying purveyor of cruelty.  Vocally, Mr. Guelfi lacks the trills that Verdi asks of Iago, though he at least makes efforts to fake them, but he is little troubled by the part’s range.  Mr. Guelfi is not an Iago who challenges the memories of great Iagos of the past, but he is one who sings one of Verdi’s most demanding baritone rôles without embarrassment.

Though the ‘Verdi soprano’ is an unique and elusive species of singer, Desdemona’s music has been successfully sung by an array of voices: glowing with the opulent tones of Renata Tebaldi, Dame Margaret Price, and even Dame Joan Sutherland, Desdemona’s often delicate vocal lines have been filled equally beautifully by leaner voices like those of Victoria de los Ángeles, Rosanna Carteri, Teresa Żylis-Gara, and Raina Kabaivanska.  Even as her vast repertory expands to include parts like the title rôle in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Krassimira Stoyanova retains a firmly lyrical core in her voice, enabling her to keep in her active repertory the Mozart and bel canto rôles that many sopranos eschew as they take on heavier parts.  [As recently as October 2013, she sang highly-acclaimed performances of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Wiener Staatsoper.]  When she brought her Desdemona to the Metropolitan Opera in March 2013, she confirmed her Verdian credentials to audiences who first heard her as Violetta in La Traviata in 2001.  The performance preserved on this recording of Otello is nothing short of authoritative.  Perhaps the most important quality that a credible Desdemona must display is graceful femininity, and this Ms. Stoyanova imparts effortlessly.  In ‘Già nella notte densa,’ the love duet in Act One, she floats tones very attractively, infusing passages like ‘Ed io t’amavo per le tue sventure e tu m’amavi per la mia pietà’ (‘And I loved you for your struggles and you loved me for my compassion’) with burning but never vulgar passion.  In Act Two, Ms. Stoyanova is a model of gentility, her defense of Cassio sincere but suggesting—to stable, unpolluted minds, at least—nothing more than the innocent interest of a friend.  The elegance with which she manages the ascending lines of the frequently-marred concertato in ‘D’un uom che geme’ is remarkable, and she and Maestro Muti collaborate to ensure that Desdemona’s phrasing is the spine of the scene, as it should be.  This Desdemona is no shrinking violet, however, and Ms. Stoyanova raises the dramatic temperature of the performance with compelling flashes of indignation in Act Three.  Publicly mocked, accused, and brutalized by Otello, Ms. Stoyanova’s Desdemona audibly experiences disbelief, terror, and crushing shame: Otello is a man of a class beneath her, little more than a savage, whom she has loved despite the objections of the society by which her morals were shaped, and how dares he to repay her faith in his goodness and capacity for self-improvement with baseless charges?  Her recriminations are not facile tears but injections of steely resolve and impenetrable dignity.  The whole of Act Four finds Ms. Stoyanova performing with the acumen of a truly great singing actress, the quietude of the ‘Ave Maria’—stirringly sung—giving way to the shock of Otello’s betrayal and calm but not complacent recognition that there is no escape from death.  An occasional wiriness at the extreme top of the voice detracting nothing from the effectiveness of her singing, Ms. Stoyanova produces secure, garnet-colored tone throughout the performance.  It is rare today that an important singer enjoys an opportunity to be recorded at her best in an appropriate rôle.  Ms. Stoyanova was clearly sensitive to this boon and rose to it with a performance of Desdemona that satisfies on every level.

Aleksandrs Antonenko also sings a large variety of rôles, supplementing the Slavic and verismo repertories for which he is perhaps most acclaimed with performances of parts like Pollione in Bellini’s Norma, which he recently sang at the MET.  Otello is the sort of rôle to which the burly strength of his voice is better suited, though it is hoped that he will be judicious in expanding his repertory of dramatic rôles that he elects to sing in large theatres.  Concert performances are safer ground, musically and dramatically, but the example of his illustrious predecessor in a Chicago Symphony Otello, Luciano Pavarotti, proved that careful husbanding of resources and sympathetic placement of microphones are inadequate substitutes for possession of the legitimate voix du rôle.  The legitimacy of Mr. Antonenko’s engagement is established at Otello’s first entrance, with his stentorian singing of ‘Esultate!’  From that start, he seizes command throughout Act One, singing broadly.  Mr. Antonenko follows Ms. Stoyanova’s lead in the Love Duet, softening his tone convincingly.  In Act Two, the incredulity with which he receives Iago’s ill-conceived tidings is subtly but powerfully conveyed, his outbursts in his interview with Iago before Desdemona’s entrance forcefully depicting both the solidity of his faith in his wife and the decaying effect of Iago’s lies.  When Mr. Antonenko unleashes the full power of his voice in ‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo guiro,’ the results are thrilling.  In general, his singing is shorter on tonal shading than on raw vigor, but he phrases with sufficient imagination to avoid sounding one-dimensional.  In Act Three, Mr. Antonenko’s Otello surrenders himself to rage, and violence seems the sole thought possible for the broken mind encountered in Act Four.  Still, there is tenderness in his interaction with Desdemona even as he forces the life out of her body.  There is little poetry in Mr. Antonenko’s singing, but there is a moving stamp of tragedy.  The aptness of his voice for the part is evident in the relative security with which Mr. Antonenko sings Otello’s music, his top notes mostly well-supported and landing squarely on the indicated pitches.  If those who love the opera are fortunate, there is perhaps one great Otello in each generation of singers.  It is premature to make any proclamations about the sovereignty of Mr. Antonenko’s portrayal of the complicated, conflicted Moor, but this performance indisputably advances his candidacy.

Such is the allure of the score that many people who do not fancy the operas of Verdi reluctantly confess affection for Otello.  In its purest essence, Otello is one of the finest examinations of the themes that inspired both Shakespeare and Verdi to their best work: arrogance, compassion, envy, insecurity, prejudice, and trust.  If, as so many directors and producers who turn their hands to the genre suggest, opera must be relevant, which themes are more recognizable to 21st-Century audiences than these; and which opera in the standard repertory deals more insightfully with them than Otello?  Already in his eighth decade when he got round to starting work on Otello, Verdi retained unerring instincts for the theatre, but gone were the oversized emotions and dramatic caricatures of his earlier operas.  What remain in Otello are the very real struggles of decent people against both internal and external forces that they cannot overcome.  As much stupidity has been written about Otello as about any great work of art, about hidden meanings and subversive subtexts, but what Verdi wrote about, as surely as did Wagner, was the universal human journey towards death and the ways in which love alters the path.  On the whole, this recording offers a winning account of this tremendous score, one that features a Desdemona superior to almost any other singing today and a supporting cast never surpassed on records, and if there is any conductor in the world today who knows Otello as thoroughly and conducts it as masterfully as Riccardo Muti does in this performance, let him come forth and prove it.