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Verdi - Otello [2 DVDs]
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Darauf hatten Opernfans in aller Welt lange gewartet: Das Rollendebüt von Jonas Kaufmann als Otello am Londoner Covent Garden im Juni 2017. Die Verdi-Partie gilt als ganz besondere Tenorherausforderung und ruft Vergleiche mit legendären Rollenvertretern wie Jon Vickers, Mario del Monaco und Plácido Domingo hervor. "Kaufmann ist einfach das Richtige für die Rolle (er war, wie wir sagen könnten, geboren, um sie zu singen): Die düstere Melancholie seiner Stimme, die Natürlichkeit, mit der er den verwundeten Außenseiter porträtiert, machte ihn perfekt," hieß es in der New York Times. Und der Londoner Evening Standard resümierte: "Ein Otello, der es mit den Besten aufnehmen kann." Als unschuldig-seelenvolle Desdemona ist Maria Agresta und Marco Vratogna als betrügerischer Schurke Jago zu erleben. Der Mitschnitt der intensiven Aufführung, die Opernchef Antonio Pappano voller Umsicht und mit der gebührenden Dramatik dirigierte und Keith Warner wie einen Thriller inszenierte, erscheint jetzt auf DVD/Bluray bei Sony Classical.
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First of all, his Otello is much more a lover and a man easily manipulated than a ferocious warrior hero. The triumphant general appearance begins and ends with his "Esultate!", Since then Jonas Kaufmann, who will perform the same role in November of this year, in Munich, develops a doubtful character: he is weak, uncomfortable in the exercise of political command and not at ease among the soldiers. He portrays the Moor as a man who fears of not even sexually satisfying his wife, an idea that ends up making his subsequent murderous fury more understandable, with the marriage already consummated.
The famous "Otello's glory" is an external triumph that has no correlation with what the Moor believes or feels about himself, perhaps a social or original impairment, racial?, that has broken his mind and soul. Not so much jealousy, however. Furthermore there is the so rare Desdemona's insistence that she loves him for his misadventures and that he loves her for her pity: they are indeed, curious (Shakespearean) principles on which to base a love relationship.
The storm with which the opera starts is a symbol of what Otello/Kaufmann lives inside. The glorious, popular success does not reach his Moor so to annihilate the monster that he has inside and that does not let him live. It is symptomatic, and brilliant, the idea of the stage director Keith Warner when Otello emerges from the depths of the earth to proclaim his victory just as the figure of Desdemona, unattainable, appears from above: to her he sings his victory and not to the people. He is saying "I can do it", in short.
The duo with Desdemona of the first act was masterful in the dark voice of Kaufmann, including the A pianissimo in "Venere splende". His performance was a continuous progress, with summits in the insistent obstinacy for the search of the handkerchief; in the monologue "Dio! mi potevi scagliar", a prodigy of phrasing and construction during which the aristocratic authority of the Moor, accentuated by the magnificent physical presence of the tenor, is penetrated by a growing and uncontrollable rage, and in the scene of the murder and the subsequent suicide, where the richness of his half voice and his delivery were translated into a state of emotion that fascinated the entire Royal Opera House.
The soprano María Agresta, whose voice has grown and who apparently still cannot control her vocal volume to address the most intimate lines, was fine. Your Desdemona is innocent, but not fragile. Regrettably, Ludovic Tézier canceled his debut as Yago, because it would have been a perfect complement to the complex design of Kaufmann's Otello; the Italian baritono Marco Vratogna, who is an efficient singer with a not pleasant voice, does not manage to expose the thousand faces of this demon made for evil.
Keith Warner, who had the good idea of not dying the protagonist, thought of the scenario as a kind of dark black box that, to a certain extent, "embodies" the darkness of the protagonist's mind, with light entering only through small windows and sneaking by walls of metal arabesques. With virtual austerity, Warner developed a picture of great psychological penetration, accentuating the chiaroscuro and a world of shadows dominated by black, red and twilight blue; the sky of the love duo of the first act has a new expressive meaning in the night coat Otello wears at the murder scene (suggestive idea, it must be said).
With memories of Murnau's cinema and references to the expressionist theatre and the mental world of Orson Welles's "Othello", the setting uses the white only for Desdemona and for the Venetian court in the third act, the same that makes its entrance in the most inappropriate moment, crushing with its anthropological and statuesque opulence, of government, of class, what little was left of the cheered Moor. Then a kind of light blow blinds Otello at the end.
It was important the presence on the podium of the Maestro Antonio Pappano. From its initial storm to the morendo chords of the last bars, the orchestra allowed the audience to listen to the thousand layers of this masterpiece and hundreds of details generally unnoticed, like those double bass solo during the last act, that account for a thick bustle of souls who walk towards inevitable condemnation."
Maria Agresta als Desdemona und Marco Vratogna in der Rolle des Bösen (Jago) beeindrucken als "stimmige Teamplayer". Die orchestrale Gestaltung unter dem spannungsgeladenen, distinguierten Dirigat von Antonio Pappano sucht ebenfalls seinesgleichen.
Die Inszenierung ist stimmig und die Kostüme sind überzeugend gewählt! Packendes Psychodrama statt cholerisches Theater. Diese DVD ist tatsächlich ein besonderes Erlebnis.
Jonas Kaufmann als Otello, das Rauschen im Blätterwald war vorprogrammiert, die Vergleiche ebenfalls.
Was ist Fakt: Kaufmann prägt seiner Interpretation die darstellerisch, subtil ästhetische, eruptiv explosive Linie auf, zeichnet den eifersüchtigen Otello in allen Facetten.
Maria Agresta als Desdemona, wunderbar feinstrahlig,
Marco Vrotogna als Iago, überzeugend durch feinsinnig gestufte Gestaltung, stimmlich nicht so schwarz, wie schon gehört, Geschmacksache.
Antonio Pappano dirigiert involvierend.
Insgesamt ein Kaufmann Statement der individuellen, stimmlich grundierten "baritonal" intonierenden Gestaltung. Der Streit im Vergleich besser/schlechter ist reine Kinderei, obwohl die Presse davon lebt.
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Kaufmann singing Otello: I hear an overparted lyric compensating astutely with all of his resources, and the support of the most skilled conductor to handle such a challenge: Pappano. Kaufmann has a 4-cylinder engine for a role that requires 8 cylinders. Yes, he has a very baritonal timbre, but this is a most unusual case that I don't think has precedents in the history of recorded singers: baritonal though he is, he is a lyric, the voice has no metal, no ping, projects poorly. Microphones love voices like this, that do not project so much. OTOH Kaufmann has superb stamina; a very long breath - he can hold a legato line from here to Stalingrad; first class breath control (hence astounding soft singing, ability to shade and vary dynamics) as well as very intelligent phrasing, not to mention looks, charisma, and some acting skills. How do you use these considerable assets to compensate for inadequate power in the heaviest role in the Verdi canon? You basically slow down and stretch the phrases long enough to leave an impression and some semblance of an impact with the rest of your assets.
A mental image of Otello's musical footprint conjures auditory images of a heroic tenor loudly battling a frenzied orchestra. It is surprising how much of the score is written with the orchestra skillfully suppressed, bel-canto like, during solo singing. Kaufmann takes full advantage of this by soft singing anywhere he can, pushing to forte only minimally, thus creating a large amplitude, that has some impact and leaves some impression, in lieu of true volume. Kaufmann always requires broad tempi to sing comfortably, but here he requires them to survive the role, and Pappano obliges astutely. There are a few spots where Pappano cannot oblige so much, like in "Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!" that ends act II and see and (better) watch what happens: the effort is way too much for Kaufmann.
There are other conductors who indulge Kaufmann's need for broad tempos, but no conductor in the world manages this particular challenge better than Pappano. He faced a somewhat similar challenge with Simon Keenlyside in the 2011 ROH Macbeth released on Opus Arte. Keenlyside is no more qualified to sing Macbeth than Kaufmann is to sing Otello, but like Kaufmann, he has a somewhat similar balance of assets and deficits: a lyric with the volume to match, but with stamina and long breath. Pappano was able to build a superb reading around Keenlyside's needs and assets by adjusting his tempos and providing power and energy elsewhere. He succeeded in embedding the custom-tailored pacing of the challenged singer in a rhythmic framework where it doesn't stick out, by defining it from the outset as a varied pacing that goes back and forth from slow, deliberate and emphatic pacing to manic, hectic pacing (and back), dramatically meaningful, with fascinating results for all, and without calling attention to himself. This as opposed to just lazy slowing down like other conductors. His pacing breathes with the singers' in the challenging measures very accurately down to a beat. I doubt Keenlyside would have been able to touch this role in a house like the ROH without Pappano. Pappano uses the same approach in this Otello, accommodating Kaufmann but providing power and energy (and speeding up) whenever he can elsewhere. However, the results are different this time, because the tenor role's demands are more extreme. Kaufmann requires and gets an indulgent tugging of the tempos to the point that the overall balance of the score is distorted. You cannot build Otello on pure intelligence and style, there is a built-in need for raw power. Moreover, this refinement and emasculation of the tenor's role and by extension of the score affects many other artistic and aesthetic choices and results in a somewhat bland outcome. If I have to watch Otello in 4 sessions because the performance doesn't hold my attention long enough something is wrong.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin was faced with the same challenge in the Met 2015 Otello with Željko Lučić's underpowered Iago, with even blander results, because, to my ears, the singer, who was by then an established Verdi baritone at The MET, challenged the newcomer to the MET (YNS) passive-aggressively not only by under-singing but also by dragging the tempos almost provocatively: YNS was not established enough to fight him. Any tempo fight where the conductor forges ahead irrespective of the singer's slowing would have resulted in a fiasco that would have been blamed on YNS. These are not facts, this is what I hear. 20 years ago I would not have paid attention to such things and if you pointed them out to me I would think you are full of it.
Interestingly, Kaufmann has the opposite problem than José Cura, particularly in Otello: Cura has the volume but his stamina and breath are short. He has to spit out quick, sloppily shaped phrases which he can pass off as highly charged singing. There is a comic moment on the Liceu blu-ray of the 2006 Otello where the tenor is supposed to end act II together with the baritone in "Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!" They are supposed to sing this together, but Cura barks the text and finishes the last phrase "Dio vendicator!" like 2 seconds before the baritone Lado Atanelli, and this in a performance that was already well rehearsed and it's not opening night.
I don't know how anyone can find any fault with baritone Marco Vratogna's Iago, who took over the role with just 3-weeks advance notice. He sounds perfect to my ears - a real baritone, a real dramatic baritone, a real Verdi baritone (an almost extinct species), beautiful tone, sings on the breath, has the charisma for the role of a villain - the total package. Who would you rather hear instead today, the ex-tenor? The Serb? Falk Struckmann? Carlos Álvarez? Lucio Gallo maybe? Give me a break (and count your lucky stars that we have Marco Vratogna) - this is directed at the bitching online. As to trills, when was the last time anyone heard a Iago trilling? Actually, IIRC Carlo Guelfi trilled in his MET 2004 Iago, but hardly anyone noticed and there was bitching online anyway.
Agresta is prosaic and director Keith Warner should have spent more time with the singers, directing their every movement and posture. Kaufmann seems to have been left to manage on his own; his acting style is too realistic and casual for this concept.
We now have 9 Otellos on blu-rays (I'm not counting DVD's): Domingo at La Scala, Cura at the Liceu and at Salzburg, Antonenko at Salzburg and at the MET, Botha, Kunde, Stuart Neill and this one. The only ones I return to are Antonenko in Salzburg for Muti and Cura at the Liceu despite their shortcomings. But I will go down to my grave clutching Mario Del Monaco's 1959 performance in Tokyo on a VAI DVD.
Let’s begin with the singers. One of the most talented dramatic tenors of modern times taking on one of the most storied and career-defining roles in the tenor repertoire is obviously big news, and, let’s face it, with his star power in the opera world, Kaufmann is obviously the main draw here for a lot of potential buyers. I had read reviews that said his singing was fine but his acting was a bit detached, so I prepared myself to be underwhelmed before slipping this disc into the player. Maybe those critics attended a different performance than this one, because I found nothing at all lacking in the man’s dramatic delivery. His is a more subtly manic Otello than you might see from other singers, sure, and yet I found his portrayal psychologically deft and never less than completely committed to the drama. As for his vocalism, well, I can understand his putting off assaying this role earlier in his career because it has such a reputation as a voice-killer, but the part really does match his tessitura exceptionally well. Kaufmann is often described as a baritonal tenor, and this helps him navigate the mercurial nature of Verdi’s vocal writing more adeptly than a lot of other singers. Ben Heppner once joked that the difficulty of singing Otello is overstated, that by the time you’re taking your curtain calls you’d still have another whole act of Tristan und Isolde to gut out. And yet the role nearly destroyed his voice. Kaufmann’s pipes are uniquely built for this particular part and as a result he should turn out to be a Moor of longstanding. Kaufmann is still fairly young which means he’s probably going to get even better the more he sings this part, provided he decides to make it a regular part of his repertoire, which is great news for Otello lover since he’s already most accomplished.
Otello is basically a three-character chamber piece, well, maybe four characters if you count the chorus, and the other major performers are quite good as well. Sonya Yoncheva is probably the best contemporary Desdemona that I know of, but if one forgets for a moment the fact that she’s so closely associated with this role then soprano Maria Agresta is actually a fine Desdemona in her own right. Her voice is lovely and gets stronger throughout the opera, culminating in the ensemble that closes the third act, one of the greatest dramatic pieces of music in all opera, and later in the Willow Song and Ave Maria. During the former she sings the word salce as if it’s a mantra meant to calm her tortured misgivings, while the latter becomes an orison of incredible sadness and ethereality. What she has going for her are a more Italianate voice than Yoncheva (well, she is Italian after all) and an innate sweetness that makes the character’s incomprehension of discord all the more convincing. As for Iago, I was disappointed upon reading that Ludovic Tezier was supposed to make his debut in this role but then backed out, because he is such a dynamic performer. But after experiencing Marco Vratogna’s rendition I haven’t the slightest inkling of regret. Visually he’s an ideal Iago with his shaved head and malevolent features and athletic physique. As for the vocal and dramatic elements, he presents a formidable foil for Otello’s easily manipulated naivete, in other words not an Iago you’d want to encounter in a dark alley.
Even before James Levine stepped down from the podium at the Met you could have made a case that Antonio Pappano and Daniel Barenboim were the two greatest contemporary conductors of opera, but now with Levine out of the picture I don’t think there’s any question. Pappano is known for his allegiance to both traditional opera (the Italian repertoire in particular) as well as modern works, and here he brings the best of both worlds to his interpretation. This is appropriate since Otello really is a nearly perfect fusion of the old and the new, with parts of it even today sounding as if they might have been composed only recently. The orchestral writing is as psychologically true as Wagner’s though more subtle, less pronounced - for instance the music that opens the third act is among the most impressive orchestral pieces in all opera, yet it lasts only a couple of minutes, whereas Wagner likely would have stretched it out for five, and even ten - and Pappano has an almost spiritual affinity with the meaning, and impact, of each and every note. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this score performed better, but of course the Royal Opera House orchestra deserves a lot of the credit for their clean and incisive playing and how attuned they are with the vocalists. And the ROH chorus under William Spaulding continues to impress as one of the best in the world.
Like the Met’s current production, Keith Warner’s Otello is minimalist, and rather dark but with moments of light. Like the opera itself it’s a mixture of the traditional and modern. At times it seems as if what we’re seeing is a play within a play, which makes perfect sense considering that the events as they play out are all scripted ahead of time by the villainous Iago. This is a production that takes seriously the events and relationships of the opera and doesn’t try to shock the audience with any outre effects. There is one scene where Otello is playing with toy boats that looks a bit silly, but I interpreted this as the character plotting out military strategies and accepted it as appropriate to the text. On the whole, I’d say this is a production the folks at Covent Garden should consider keeping around for a long time.
In conclusion, this performance is going to be considered by many as Jonas Kaufmann’s Otello, but in fact it belongs just as much to Antonio Pappano and his orchestra. Even if you already own a number of Otellos on Blu-ray and DVD, as I do, I recommend making room on your shelf for one more. If any opera deserves to be represented by multiple versions in a connoisseur’s collection, it’s this one, according to Joseph Kerman one of the most perfect music dramas ever composed. And if any recent performance of Otello deserves to take its place alongside the established classics, it’s this one. Enjoy!