Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Ramón Vinay and the search for the soul of Otello

Lauritz Melchior sings Otello's monologue (in German, in a 1930 HMV recording) maybe better than I've heard anyone else sing it. (Note: We've got English texts coming up in a bit if you want to jump ahead to them.)

by Ken

I first heard about the Melchior performance of Otello's monologue in Conrad L. Osborne's 1963 High Fidelity magazine discography of Otello. It took awhile, but eventually one day I was browsing the import section of the new releases at one of the record stores I frequented, and there was an LP devoted to Melchior on a label I had never seen, which as far as I could tell didn't even identify itself, except as "Lebendige Vergangenheit," or LV. The company turned out to be Preiser, which became and remains an important source of vocal reissues. I didn't know that then, though, but I had no choice except to pay bust-out retail for the disc. (When could I expect to find this unknown label on sale?)

As I hope you've already heard, the performance turned out to be every bit as good as promised by CLO.

As it happens, Conrad's Otello discography in High Fidelity is also the source of the quote about Ramón Vinay's Otello that I talked about the other day, when I recounted how I succeeded in digging it up for an obituary I was assigned to write of the Chilean-born baritone-tenor-baritone after he died (on Jan. 4, 1996; I looked it up).


Back then, even with a deadline bearing down on me, I felt that the CLO quote -- to the effect that if you got past the eccentricities of Vinay's vocal production, you could get to the soul of Otello -- was the most important thing I could bring to the obituary. And by gosh, I managed to include it, by racing to the Lincoln Center libary and finding the appropriate bound volume of High Fidelitys, then hightailing it back to the office.

Maybe I was more determined back then, or maybe it just seemed to matter more. Still, as I've thought about making good my plan to present the audio clip I mentioned I'd already made of Vinay singing Otello's monologue, from that awful moment in Act III when he embraces the crazy belief that Desdemona has been unfaithful, I felt more and more that, once again, I needed that quote. And it occurred to me that I should have an option I didn't back then: online searchability. I should be able to turn up the obit fairly easily, wouldn't you think?

Alas. You probably can't imagine how paralyzed i was by the prospect of trying to dig up a piece of my own writing. Especially such a quick and acknowledgedly superficial one. In either the best- or worst-case scenario, I would find myself face to face with a piece of me I had no desire to revisit.

Still, I wanted that damned quote badly enough that finally I rose above all that psychic trauma. Only to find that none of the search terms I could think of to enter, even on the newspaper's own website, turned it up. When all other possibilities failed, I went so far,as to include my own name. It felt horribly strange typing my own name into a search engine. I just don't do that. So in the end the joke was on me. I don't know what the joke was, exactly, but it was on me.

Anyway, that's no reason not to proceed with the plan, to hear Vinay singing Otello's monologue alongside some other notable Otellos.


I've included the whole first section of the monologue -- a longer stretch than I normally do when I include a bit of score. It seemed worthwhile, and once again not because I expect readers to be able to read music. I think there are things you can see in the writte-down version that you can correlate with what you can hear. And that's especially true of Verdi's setting of this portion of the monologue.

• You can see that at the very start there's an unusual directive to the singer, though you might not know that "voce soffocata" means "suffocated voice."

• You might recognize that the immediately following dynamic marking of pppp is unusual, which it is. Each added "p" (for "piano," soft) adds another level of softness, and while composers often use "pp" (pianissimo) and occasionally "ppp," by the time we get to four "p"s, we may infer that the composer is trying to send a message to both the singer and the audience.

And the message is even, er, louder-and-clearer when part is written for an enormous voice, as Otello is. Such voices are way harder to scale down than more ordinary-size voices, but when it's done and done well, the effect is wildly different. A scaled-down big voice is a sound that just isn't available to other voices -- not to mention the contrast that happens when the voice is opened out -- listen, for example, to Vinay or del Monaco or Vickers singing "Oh gioia!"

• Moving on, you'll notice that this first section of the monologue consists of 16 A-flats, followed by 5 E-flats, followed by 16 A-flats and 5 E-flats, followed by -- guess what -- 16 A-flats and 6 E-flats (but note that the first three A-flats here have staccato markigns -- crisp and disconnected; and then there's a crescendo, another crescendo, and an immediate diminuendo -- an increase, an increase, and a decrease in volume), followed by something more like regular singing, which starts, however, with another cluster of (what else?) A-flats, and rises only to B-flat and then a surprising C-natural (surprising because in this very peculiar key of A-flat minor that C ought to be flatted).

With regard to all those endless note repetitions, which obviously pose a series of humongous challenges for the performer, on theory might be that Verdi didn't care much about this setting, or maybe couldn't think of any other notes. Another theory might be that he was challenging the singer to find the inner life in those repeated notes, to find out what's being expressed and how he can express it in vocal terms. And by that I don't mean that the singer barks or gasps or gurgles, or makes up little tunes of his own. I'll leave it to you to decide which singers make choices that tell us the most about what's happening to Otello.

Since the Otello we've been tracking is Jon Vickers, I've once again included both his 1960 studio recording, when he was still new to the role, and the 1971 Salzburg performance, by which time he had a decade's worth of Otellos under his belt, to hear how different they may be. It might have been fun to track some of other Otellos' history with the role.


The situation is that, as has become clear in the just-completed duet with Desdemona, Otello is swallowing Jago's fabricated story of Desdemona's infidelity with Cassio.

VERDI: Otello: Act III, Otello's monologue,
"Dio! mi potevi scagliar"

With a movement of his arm alone, OTELLO pushes DESDEMONA out of the door without losing his composure. Then, in the very depths of despair, he returns to the middle of the hall.

OTELLO: God! Thou couldst have rained upon my head
every affliction of poverty and shame,
made of my heroic battle honors
a heap of ruination and a lie . . .
and I should have borne the cruel cross
of torment and disgrace
with patience
and resigned myself to the will of heaven.
But -- oh tears, oh pain! --
to rob me of that vision
in which my soul was garnered joyfully!
That sun has been snuffed out,
that smile, that ray
which gives me life and happiness!
That sun has been snuffed out, etc.
Mercy, thou immortal
rose-lipped cherubin,
cover at the last thy holy face
with the horrid mask of hell!
Ah! Damnation!
Let her first confess her crime,
then die!
Confession! Confession!
[JAGO enters.]
The proof!...
JAGO [pointing to the door]: Cassio is here!
OTELLO: Here? Heaven! Oh joy!
JAGO: Restrain yourself!
[Rapidly leading OTELLO to the back of the hall on the left, where there is a recess on the terrace.]
-- English translation by Avril Bordoni for Decca

Ramón Vinay (t), Otello; Giuseppe Valdengo (b), Jago; NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA, from broadcast performance, NBC Studio 8-H, Dec. 13, 1947

Mario del Monaco (t), Otello; Tito Gobbi (b), Jago; RAI (Milan) Symphony Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, cond. Broadcast performance, Sept. 6, 1954

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Tito Gobbi (b), Jago; Rome Opera Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, cond. RCA, recorded July-Aug. 1960

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Peter Glossop (b), Jago; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live peformance from the Salzburg Festival, July 30, 1971

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Kostas Paskalis (b), Jago; Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra (Paris), Nello Santi, cond. Live performance, July 13, 1978

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