Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ghost of Sunday Classics: It's a barely fathomable distance dramatically from the end of Act I to the end of Act II of Verdi's "Otello"

Aa Act II ends, Otello (Jon Vickers, right) swears vengeance and Jago (Cornell MacNeil) swears his support (all with subtitles), one of the most thrilling and most appalling moments you'll encounter on a stage -- with James Levine conducting, at the Met in September 1978.

by Ken

We've been dealing with the sisterly or at least cousinly kinship between Verdi's Luisa Miller and Desdemona, and in case it wasn't in obvious in last night's preview, this week we're back to Desdemona.

In the preview we heard the very end of the conclusion of Act II of Verdi's Otello, the moor's oath of vengeance, abetted by his "trusted' Jago, on his "unfaithful" wife -- violent, insanely overflowing with testosterone, but also undeniably thrilling. It's at once one of the most thrilling and most appalling moments you'll encounter on a stage.

Then we heard the next bit of music in the opera, the brief orchestral prelude to Act III, built on an insidious, slithery tune that was first heard Act II, and so we then backed up to listen to the theme to which the diabolical Jago, as part of his plan to use Otello's personal insecurity to destroy him, "warns" him against jealousy.

VERDI: Otello: Act II, Jago, "Temete, signor, la gelosia!" ("Beware, my lord of jealousy")
Beware, my lord, of jealousy!
'Tis a dark hydra, malignant, blind.
It poisons itself with its own venom.
Its breast is rent by a vivid wound.

(1) Leonard Warren, baritone; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Live performance, Nov. 16, 1946
(2) Tito Gobbi, baritone; NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo), Alberto Erede, cond. Telecast performance, recorded Feb. 4, 1959
(3) Sherrill Milnes, baritone; National Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded August 1978
(4) Leo Nucci, baritone; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded live in concert, April 1991
(5) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded Aug, Oct., and Nov, 1968

Otello is filled with astonishments (it's practically nothing but astonishments). One real astonishment is how Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito get us, in the space of an act of maybe 35 minutes, from the Act I curtain to the Act II curtain. I thought this week we might peek into the innards of Act II a little. That's not going to happen, at least not this week, But I think this little riff on jealousy, in which Jago significantly amplifies Otello's jealousy by warning him against jealousy, is a splendid sample of how those ardent Shakespeareans Verdi and Boito used their operatic toolkit to accomplish this astonishment.


The final chunk of Act I, you may recall, is the sublime love duet for Otello and Desdemona, which we've actually listened to over a number of posts. In fact, all the performances we're going to hear today are ones we've heard in one post or another.

It's the night just following the triumphant but terror-inspiring return to Cyprus of its governor from his whupping of the Saracens, which was almost climaxed by the demise of his own in a violent storm within sight of home port. Now, amid the island festivities, Jago has been furiously setting in motion plots against his rival, Cassio -- a first step in his ultimate plot, against Otello himself. Jago has nudged events so that a Cassio drunk winds up starting a riot that brings Otello storming out of his castle followed by torchbearers like so:

VERDI: Otello, Act I, Otello, "Abbasso le spade!" . . . Otello-Desdemona duet, "Già nella notte densa"
OTELLO: Down with your swords.
[The combatants stop fighting.]
Hold there! What's happening?
Am I among the Saracens?
Or have you become rabble Turks,
who fight each other like dogs?
Honest Jago, by the love and loyalty
that you have for me. Speak.
JAGO: I don’t know . . .
We all were just celebrating, as friends.
Then, as if a malicious star fell upon us,
a quarrel broke out.
Weapons were drawn -- chaos ensued.
I would rather cut these legs off,
for having brought me to witness this.
OTELLO: Cassio -- how could you forget yourself like this?
CASSIO:. Pardon, my Lord. I don't know . . .
OTELLO: Montano?
MONTANO [supported by a soldier]: I'm wounded, and cannot speak.
OTELLO: Wounded! By Heaven, my blood rages.
Yet my better angels restrain me.
[DESDEMONA enters. OTELLO quickly goes to her.]
What -- my sweet Desdemona.
She too was awoken by this outrage.
Cassio, you are no longer my captain!
[CASSIO lets his sword fall. It is picked up by JAGO.]
JAGO [handing CASSIO's sword to a soldier and speaking aside]: Oh, my triumph!)
OTELLO: Iago, go around the frightened town
with this squadron and restore the peace.
[JAGO leaves.]
Someone help Montano.
[MONTANO is helped into the castle.]
Everyone return to your homes.
[With an imperious gesture] I will remain here until the streets are deserted,
and calm reigns once more.

[The people leave. OTELLO makes a sign to the torchbearers who accompanied him to return to the castle. OTELLO and DESDEMONA are left alone.]
OTELLO: The vast night sky extinguishes all strife,
And my trembling heart is calmed by its embrace.
Yet, from such immense hatred
comes our immense love.
DESDEMONA: My superb warrior.
Many torments, and such sadness,
And much hope have brought you
to this blessed embrace.
How sweet when we whispered together:
Remember now with me.
When you revealed your life of exile,
and told me of your battles, and sorrow.
And I would listen from my very soul
with fear, and ecstasy in my heart.
OTELLO: I painted a canvas of armies,
of weapons poised to attack,
The assault -- of terrible victory –
cutting to the rampart -- killing the foe.
DESDEMONA: Then you would guide me
to the shining deserts of your homeland,
At last sharing your suffering –
in chains, as a slave.
OTELLO: Your tears ennobled my story.
Your beautiful visage, and your sighs
Descended upon my darkness
a blessed glory -- a paradise -- and the stars.
DESDEMONA: And I saw in your brow
a genius of eternal beauty.
OTELLO: And you loved me for my misfortunes;
And I loved you that you pitied them.
DESDEMONA: And I loved you for your misfortunes:
And you loved me that I pitied them.
OTELLO: Truly you loved me.
Let death come! And may the supreme moment take me
in the ecstasy of this embrace.
[The sky is now quite clear. Some stars are visible and, on the rim of the horizon, the blue reflection of the rising moon. ]
Such is my soul's joy that I am afraid,
I am afraid that I will never again be granted
this divine moment
in the unknown future of my destiny.
DESDEMONA: Dispel such anguish.
Our love will not change from year to year.
OTELLO: Upon this prayer,
the ranks of angels respond: Amen.
DESDEMONA: Amen, they respond.
OTELLO [supporting himself against the parapet]:
Ah. Such joy overcomes me
so vehemently, I cannot bear it.
A kiss.
OTELLO: Yet another kiss.
The stars of the Pleiades descend toward the sea.
DESDEMONA: It is late.
OTELLO: Come. Venus shall guide us.
[They go slowly toward the castle, clasped in each other's arms.]

Mario del Monaco (t), Otello; Tito Gobbi (b), Jago; John Lanigan (t), Cassio; Forbes Robinson (bs), Montano; Raina Kabaivanska (s), Desdemona; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Georg Solti, cond. Live performance, June 30, 1962

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Piero Cappuccilli (b), Jago; Giuliano Ciannella (t), Cassio; Orazio Mori (bs), Montano; Mirella Freni (s), Desdemona; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Carlos Kleiber, cond. Live performance, Dec. 7, 1976

Carlo Cossutta (t), Otello; Gabriel Bacquier (b), Jago; Peter Dvorský (t), Cassio; Stafford Dean (bs), Montano; Margaret Price (s), Desdemona; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded September 1977

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Kostas Paskalis (b), Jago; Horst R. Laubenthal (t), Cassio; Jean-Louis Soumagnas (bs), Montano; Margaret Price (s), Desdemona; Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra, Paris, Nello Santi, cond. Live performance, July 13, 1978

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Sherrill Milnes (b), Jago; William Lewis (t), Cassio; John Darrenkamp (bs), Montano; Margaret Price (s), Desdemona; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine, cond. Live performance, Feb. 2, 1985

THIS JUST ADDED (1pm PT): James McCracken (t), Otello; Sherrill Milnes (b), Jago; Enrico Di Giuseppe (t), Cassio; Robert Goodloe (b), Montano; Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Desdemona; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Apr. 8, 1972 (with post-act announcements by Milton Cross)

Love Duet only (from "Già nella notte densa")

Franco Corelli (t), Otello; Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Desdemona; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded live at the "Metropolitan Opera Gala Honoring Sir Rudolf Bing," Apr. 22, 1972

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Mirella Freni (s), Desdemona; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, July 30, 1971

Luciano Pavarotti (t), Otello; Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Desdemona; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded live in concert, April 1991
UPDATE: It's been nagging at me that I didn't say anything about the performances of the Otello Love Duet -- which are certainly an odd assortment, the result of previous-post accumulation rather than planning. I guess I was thinking that you'll hear what you need to hear, and what really needs to be heard is the music itself, from as many angles as possible -- and we've sure got a bunch of them here. In any case, the nice thing about ghost posts, at least in theory, is that such senses of obligation fade away.

But one performancet struck me on resampling: the one from the Met gala. Not so much for the singing, which really is outstanding (Teresa Zylis-Gara was a really lovely singer, and Franco Corelli seemed was offering a dynamic preview of an Otello that, sadly, never happened), but for the conducting of Karl Böhm, who had been such an unexpected choice to conduct the Met's then-new Zeffirelli Otello. It's alive and in the moment, singing and breathing, connecting humanly -- the very things that were always missing in those countless years of those once-promising Levine Met Otellos, which seemed to get deader as the years passed. (Out of curiosity, I've added the relevant chunk of Böhm's April 1972 broadcast Otello, unfortunately from the last season of mono-only Met broadcasts, to our Love Duet selections.)


Things are very different. We're not going to concern ourselves so much this week with the how-they-got-different. We're just going to step back and make sure we register just how different.

VERDI: Otello: Act II, Otello-Jago duet, "Oh! mostruosa colpa!" . . . "Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro"
OTELLO: Oh, monstrous crime!
JAGO: I have related but a dream.
OTELLO: A dream that reveals a fact.
JAGO: A dream that can give form of proof
to another indicator.
OTELLO: And which?
JAGO: Have you sometimes seen in Desdemona's hand
a handkerchief embroidered with flowers and finer than gauze?
OTELLO: It's the handkerchief I gave her
as my first token of love.
JAGO: That handkerchief, yesterday -- I'm sure of it --
I saw in the hand of Cassio!
OTELLO: Let God give him a thousand lives!
One is too poor a prey for my fury!
Jago, my heart is ice!
Far from me, pitying phantasms!
All my vain love I blow at heaven --
see, it's gone!
In its snaky coils
the hydra entwines me.
Ah, blood! blood! blood!
[He kneels..]
Yes, by marbled heaven I swear,
by the jagged lightning flash!
By death, and by the dark
death-dealing ocean flood!
In fury and dire compulsion
shall thundebolts soon rain
from this hand that I raise outstretched.
JAGO [preventing OTELLO from rising and kneeling alongside him]: Do not rise yet!
Witness, you sun that I gaze on,
which lights me and animates
the broad earth and the vast soul
of all Creation,
that to Otello I dedicate I zealously dedicate
my heart, my arm, and my soul,
if his will arms itself for the bloody work!
OTELLO and JAGO [aising their arms to heaven as if swearing a solemn oath[: Yes, by marbled heaven, etc.
God the avenger!

Enrico Caruso (t), Otello; Titta Ruffo (b), Jago; Victor Orchestra. RCA, recorded in New York City, Jan. 8, 1914

Jussi Bjoerling (t), Otello; Robert Merrill (b), Jago; RCA Victor Orchestra, Renato Cellini, cond. RCA, recorded 1951

Ramón Vinay (t), Otello; Paul Schöffler (bs-b), Jago; Vienna Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, 1951

James McCracken (t), Otello; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Jago; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded Aug., Oct., and Nov. 1968

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Sherrill Milnes (b), Jago; National Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded August 1978

The Caruso-Ruffo recording, their only published recording together, is indisputably classic, and not just for the fact that they sang together so infrequently. Note that this performance is the opposite of quick, producing a 4:43 78 side that can't have been easily managed in 1914. And while it seems unlikely that Jussi Bjoerling would have attempted the heavyweight role of Otello even if he had lived to finish out his career, and Robert Merrill was still some years from taking on Jago, their "Si, pel ciel" is pretty darned special.

Among the other performances, we hear some less-than-ideal things but also many good things, and different sorts of good things. This isn't the best singing you'll hear from the Chilean Heldentenor Ramón Vinay, but Otello was a special role for him. In his broadcast legacy he is the Otello of both Toscanini and Furtwängler! We might have done some comparisons, but I didn't have either of my CD editions of the Toscanini Otello at hand, and I was already doing more LP dubbing than I wished. We might also have listened to Vinay, originally a baritone-to-tenor convert, back in the baritone range as Jago, but that would also have involved more LP dubbing, and I decided enough was enough.)

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