01 Apr 2010
Otello (Salzburg Festival 2008) on Blu-Ray
There are two reasons why you need to see the new Otello DVD (Salzburg Festival 2008).
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Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
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There are two reasons why you need to see the new Otello DVD (Salzburg Festival 2008).
The first is the soprano Marina Poplavskaya, a nearly perfect Desdemona, despite the fact that she’s in no way fragile, shy, or ingenuous. Her emotions span the whole Shakespearean range from extreme tenderness to subdued anger — she’s a Desdemona to be reckoned with. Shakespeare includes a wit-contest between Iago and Desdemona, a scene missing from the opera and often cut from the play, in which Desdemona shows a playful, even flashy side — Poplavskaya gives us this intelligence and more. And her singing is beautiful: during the last “Salce!” in the second verse of the “Willow Song,” she fines her voice down until it sounds like the English horn that’s about to echo it, as if you weren’t sure where the singing stopped and the soulless nymph in the orchestra began. (All the singing in this performance is beautiful, though Aleksandrs Antonenko, the Otello, and Carlos Álvarez, the Jago, are both somewhat stolid, monochromatic presences, one all hysterical impulse, the other all forthright snarl.)
The second reason is Riccardo Muti’s decision to include the rarely-heard 1894 Paris version of the Act 3 finale, in which Verdi thinned the texture of the choral-orchestral mass. This has the advantage that Iago’s instructions to Roderigo to kill Cassio can be clearly understood, but great disadvantage that the surge of energy, the urgent darkening that begins when Iago sings “Una parola,” never manifests itself — the familiar 1887 version is the more powerful experience. The director Stephen Langridge, in the Salzburg production, casts a green light over the actors in this scene, providing a Shakespearean touch missing from the opera: Iago tells Othello to beware a green-eyed monster, but Jago tells Otello to fear a dark, blind, living hydra — “occhi verdi” never appear in Boito’s text.
Langridge’s production is better to think about than to look at, though he provides a sort of framed mini-stage at the center, and it occasionally appears that Jago is showing Otello a slide show of infidelity — I like that. Langridge takes tremendous care with the choral scenes: “Fuoco di gioia!” shows some bawdy women nearly raping a young boy, as if Jago, all horned evil, were in charge of the staging even before the plot is hatched; and during “Dove guardi splendono” Desdemona is given first a conch, then a small plaster statue of Venus — Langridge was clearly remembering “Venere splende” in Act 1, Otello’s last words in the love duet. During the vengeance duet Otello will smash the statue; at the beginning of Act 4 Desdemona will try absently to re-attach the head. Iconoclasm is the basic modality of this production, appropriately enough in a play about the shattering of reputation.
In fact Langridge shatters the stage itself. During the storm, a vast jagged crack, like a cartoon image of an earthquake, opens in the floor; and at the end of Act 3, as Jago wonders what would stop him from putting his foot on Otello’s skull, he stomps on a low wide glass platform, which breaks in two — the rear half lifts in the air, and its huge sharp zigzags will brood over the rest of the action. Verdi and Boito disagreed about the handling of the Act 3 finale — Verdi suggested to Boito that he write verses about a new invasion: “Suddenly in the distance are heard drums, trumpets, cannon fire, etc., etc…“The Turks! The Turks! Populace and soldiers invade the stage. All are surprised and frightened! Otello recovers himself and stands erect like a lion”; Boito replied, “That attack of the Turks seems to me like a fist breaking the window of a room where two people are about to die of asphyxiation. That private atmosphere of death so carefully created by Shakespeare suddenly vanishes …” The Langridge fracturing of the glass platform is the fist breaking the window: to some extent it gives the effect that Verdi initially wanted; but the composer himself came to agree with Boito, that a certain claustrophobia was a better idea.
See below for this recording in standard DVD format: