“One that lov’d not wisely but too well”: Antonenko a thrilling Otello

Verdi: Otello

Riccardo Muti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO Resound)

verdi_otello_muti_cso-resoundAs destiny would have it, the latest disc to land on the review pile following my final report on the gigantic Tutto Verdi box was this concert recording of Otello from Chicago. It features Riccardo Muti on the podium and Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role, just as they were in the 2008 Salzburg Festival production which ended up bolstering the Tutto Verdi project when the Parma staging was scrapped at the last minute. Stephen Langridge’s Salzburg production was one of the undisputed highlights of the set, superbly cast and benefiting from Muti’s taut direction of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Given in 2011, marking a return to the podium for Muti following a period of ill-health, this performance bears the hallmarks familiar from that Salzburg production. In many ways, it is a cool, somewhat calculated performance, but reveals many inner workings in Verdi’s miraculous score. The opening storm isn’t taken at breakneck speed, which allows a wealth of orchestral detail to emerge. Once again, Muti opts for the revised version (Paris 1894) of the Act III concertante, with a longer solo for Desdemona and which details Iago’s plotting far more clearly. In ‘Cassio’s dream’, Muti again denies the baritone his high sotto voce for the line “Il rio destino impreco che al Moro ti donò”, bringing him down an octave, which sounds odd after he’s been permitted it for the first quotation from Cassio’s supposed sleep-talking.

The orchestral sound is splendid, particularly the incisive brass, who blaze brightly but without the ‘glare’ which characterized the Chicago sound under Solti in their recording, also taken from concerts. Orchestra Hall offers a superb acoustic which considerably outclasses that of the Barbican on Colin Davis’ LSO Live recording, another concert performance on disc. Both boast surround sound, but employed very differently. The LSO Live engineers add thunder and cannon effects not heard in the Barbican performance itself, while these are absent in Chicago. The CSO Resound team uses surround sound to envelop the listener; off-stage trumpets emerge from behind, as do the mandolins in the chorus of Cypriots. The Herald makes his announcement from the rear right speaker.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, sounding considerably more Italianate than for Solti in 1991, offers careful rather than lusty singing in “Fuoco di gioia”, where Muti draws out the wonderful flickering woodwind lines, but is charming in the Act II Cypriot chorus where – praise be! – the Chicago Children’s Choir is employed instead of women taking their vocal line, as happened in London. The choral sound of “Viva! Evviva!” on the arrival of Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador, is overwhelming.

“One that lov’d not wisely but too well”, Antonenko is every inch the finest Otello before us today. His interpretation has changed little, vocally, since Salzburg, his dark tenor sound quite capable of opening up at the top to create a thrilling “Esultate!” and a commanding “Abbasso le spade” to silence the drunken riot in Act I.

In the great Act II scene with Iago, Antonenko’s Otello bristles with anger, especially explosive at the line “amore e geloisa vadan disperse insieme!” as Otello demands proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Muti pushes him faster than I’d suggest he wants to go in “Ora e per sempre addio” but there’s introspection in a beautifully sung “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” with little resorting to declamation or extra-musical sobs, which also applies to “Niun mi tema”. Simon O’Neill’s reading of the title role for LSO Live (literally sight-reading) and Pavarotti’s for Solti (also his first – and only Otello) pale into insignificance against one who is now so associated with the role on-stage as Antonenko.

Krassimira Stoyanova has a darker, larger spinto sound than many sopranos who take on the role of Desdemona, but she sings in such gorgeous long phrases that it’s easy to be won round. She isn’t as gifted an actress as Marina Poplavskaya, but rises to convincing indignation in Act III.  In Juan Francisco Gatell, Muti has a good, bright sounding tenor for Cassio and the minor roles are luxuriously cast: Eric Owens as Lodovico and Michael Spyres as Roderigo both stand out.

So what stops this recording matching Muti’s outstanding Salzburg performance? Sadly, it is scuppered by the Iago of Carlo Guelfi, who snarls, growls and blusters his way through the role. I admire strong characterization in the role – Iago’s villainy in his ‘Credo’ is unmistakeable – but Guelfi’s nasal tone is a severe trial and it sounds as if he is singing between gritted teeth at times. He is completely outsung by Antonenko in “Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro”. It’s not an interpretation to live with.

For an audio souvenir of Antonenko’s Otello and for its brilliant orchestral playing, this is a welcome issue. Choose the DVD/ Blu-ray option, however, and you get the best of this release – Antonenko and Muti – plus the Vienna Philharmonic, a fine production, Poplavskaya’s enchanting Desdemona (she’s done nothing finer) and Carlos Álvarez’s malevolent, but well sung, Iago. You pays your money…

Verdi: Otello  CSO Resound (CSOR 901 1303)
Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), Krassimira Stoyanova (Desdemona), Carlo Guelfi (Iago), Juan Francisco Gatell (Cassio), Michael Spyres (Roderigo), Barbara Di Castri (Emilia), Eric Owens (Lodovico), Paolo Battaglia (Montano); Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Riccardo Muti
O’Neill, Schwanewilms, Finley; LSO/ Davis (LSO Live, 2 discs) LSO0700 (2009)
Pavarotti, te Kanawa, Nucci; Chicago SO/ Solti (Decca, 2 discs) 433 669-2 (1991)
Antonenko, Poplavskaya, Álvarez; Vienna Philharmonic/ Muti (C Major, Blu-ray) 725104 (2008)

This review originally appeared in IRR. 

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