Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Review: Verdi - Otello - Toscanini - 1947 (RCA Gold Seal)

The real star of this recording is Arturo Toscanini. This is not because of charming but ultimately irrelevant historical details such as his participation as a cellist in the world premiere of Otello. This is because Toscanini was a truly great conductor and because he spent a lifetime studying Verdi's penultimate score. It shows. The amount of orchestral detail is astonishing; every third bar contains something surprising I haven't noticed before on other recordings. The miracle is it all sounds perfectly natural, indeed inevitable, smooth and yet dramatic, with stunning climaxes (e.g. the storm) yet also with melting tenderness (e.g. the love duet) when required.

The singing is what, for my part, downgrades this recording. And my main complaint is Ramon Vinay. I couldn't help laughing when I read in one of those numerous opera guides offered on Amazon that he was unquestionably the greatest Otello of the last century, or other words to that effect. He certainly is not. First of all, the man hasn't got the voice; with this baritonal timbre and strained top, he should have been better off singing Iago. Second, though he has some interesting inflections of the text (e.g. the rather restrained Death Scene), Vinay is dramatically weak as well. In some of the most tense moments, particularly in Acts 2 and 3, he merely barks his lines, making no attempt whatsoever at characterization or vocal acting.

In short, Vinay rivals Domingo as the most overrated Otello of the last century. After the glorious voices and the stupendous dramatic power of Mario del Monaco and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, it is almost physically painful to listen to the whimpering and moaning of Ramon Vinay. Rob Otello of his nobility, authority and madness, and there is nothing left to bother with. That's precisely what Vinay does here.

Herva Nelli fares a good deal better. Although Desdemona is hardly the most grateful part there is, she manages to invest the hapless Venetian maiden with a suitable dose of sweetness and innocence. Giuseppe Valdengo is the only one among the principals whose performance may be said to rival Toscanini's. Both vocally and dramatically, he is a superb Iago, entirely convincing on all fronts of his "honest" self.

The choir is altogether excellent and it's a pity there are so few choral episodes in the opera. But the opening storm is bound to knock your socks off! I understand the Guild remastering is deemed superior by the specialists, but to my ears the sound of the Gold Seal edition is quite nice: clear, natural, with excellent dynamic range and nearly perfect balance between singers and orchestra. There is relatively little distortion or background noise.

All in all, great conducting compromised by mediocre performance of the title part. This is not exactly unusual in this case. Many of Toscanini's opera broadcasts (Aida and La Traviata especially) have much the same problem. The conducting is totally compelling and often comes as a revelation. But the singing is very uneven indeed; occasional flashes of brilliance go hand in hand with a lot of sheer mediocrity. 

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