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Autumn leaves

It may have taken most of Verdi’s canon to do it, but the “Tutto Verdi” collection finally manages to do justice to Verdi in his last two operas, though they cheated with the Otello, which is from the 2008 Salzburg Festival rather than from the smaller Italian houses where the rest of the performances in the collection are from.

Needless to say, the Otello is first-rate. Riccardo Muti leads a polished, high-octane performance from the starry, youthful cast and the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. Interesting, even revelatory details of the score–articulations, harmonies, inner lines etc.–arise from his immaculate approach to the music (even more so when heard live) but there is admittedly a feeling of efficiency and calculation that may not be to everyone’s taste, yet is not exactly incongruous to late Verdi. The cast, headlined by Aleksandrs Antonenko and Marina Poplavskaya in their role debuts as Otello and Desdemona, fits well into Muti’s approach to the score.

In the title role, the baby-faced Antonenko sings with an astonishing ease and power that bodes well for his future in the part.  What hopefully will develop is a more dramatically nuanced and complex conception of the role.  Vocally, his performance is superlative, but he still has a ways to go in exploring the possibilities of this iconic part.  Here, his Otello has a limited range of emotion and too often it seems as if he lacks dramatic conviction, even in the love duet where not even the hyper-alert acting of his Desdemona seems to inspire him.  There is no vulnerability or tenderness in his acting, nor does he convey torment or struggle in his singing as those with a more jagged vocal production naturally do.

His dramatic deficiencies are made unusually obvious by the gripping performance of his Desdemona, Marina Poplavskaya.  I have never fully enjoyed a performance by this divisive artist, but here perhaps due to the relative ease of the role, hers is the most committed and complete performance of the cast.  The live audience seems to agree and gives her the biggest round of applause during the curtain calls.  In addition to beautiful singing throughout, her acting is credible and specific, portraying Desdemona with a convincing child-like naivete that is never coy or affected.  This conception of the role sorts out the dramatically problematic nature of the character and makes her terror at Otello’s outbursts all the more moving.

Carlos Alvarez‘s suave and sinister acting are well-matched by his dark voice, even if he does not have quite enough of it to make his Iago truly terrifying.  This Iago is purposeful and desperate rather than pure evil.  In the supporting parts Stephen Costello‘s sweet-voiced Cassio is a standout, his unique timbre distinctive even in such illustrious company.  Last and very much least is the production, directed by Stephen Langridge.  Apart from his presumed work with the three principals, it is quite frankly, a mess.  There are too many failed attempts at symbolism and half-baked gimmicks substituting for insight, and the production is best ignored in favor of the excellent performances by the singers and the orchestra.

Rounding out the collection is Falstaff from the Teatro Regio di Parma. This is not the wittiest or most sparkling Falstaff on video, but it is perfectly respectable.  In many ways, it showcases the best that a smaller house can offer: a well-rehearsed and directed ensemble cast, charming budget production, and feeling of fun from the performers.

In the title role, Ambrogio Maestri possesses the highest-caliber voice of the cast, and dominates the opera with his imposing presence.  That there is a menace to his portrayal of Falstaff renders the comedy more vivid.  Overall though, his characterization is a bit too generalized, and he doesn’t achieve the charming idiosyncrasy that Christopher Purves does in the DVD of Richard Jones‘s production from Glyndbourne.

Vocally, the men fare better than the women, who while more characterful are also often shrill and wobbly.  As Alice Ford, Svetlana Vassileva seems like somthing of an odd choice, with vocal qualities suited to more dramatic parts.  Yet despite her edgy tone, Vassileva is surprisingly satisfying and inhabits this mischievous role with vivaciousness and charm.  The rest of the women are variable, with Daniela Pini‘s Meg Page rather anonymous, the Nannetta of Barbara Bargnesi sweet-acting but not so sweet of voice, and Romina Tomasoni a lovable, jovial Mistress Quickly with a warm, sunny contralto to match.

Luca Salsi‘s suave, compact baritone is stretched by Ford’s brash outbursts of jealousy, but otherwise fits this aristocratic part well.  Antonio Gandia‘s sweet tenor and graceful phrasing suit Fenton beautifully and his singing is a highlight in his interludes of young love with Nanetta. The traditional production by Stephen Medcalf cleverly utilizes rather modest resources, making use of basic props and lighting to set the stage for the action.  More variety in the color palette, though, could have made the staging seem a bit less drab and low-budget. The orchestral playing is crisp and jaunty, and the very young conductor Andrea Battistoni does an admirable job of untangling the musical lines and keeping things cohesive.

30 comments

  • actfive says:

    Glad to hear this about the Otello--Antonenko has impressed me every time I’ve seen/heard him.

  • bassoprofundo says:

    Excellent review. Finally, a review on this site that has an interesting opening instead of “The background of Otello is a quite complicated one, let’s begin with the fart which Verdi released on the morning he bought the ink which he used to write the first, third, and eighth pages of his original manuscript for Otello…. (two hours later), oh by the way some tenor called Antonenko sang pretty well. Buy the DVD!”

    • manou says:

      As basso now reviews the reviews, will someone volunteer to review basso’s reviews?

      • rapt says:

        I fear that I, for one, must decline. I try not to use that kind of language in public.

      • peter says:

        Brilliant!

      • kashania says:

        To start, there’s the use of the word “review” in such quick succession. And the fart remark is a bit of a straw man. More pertinent smack-down would be a reference to what shoes Verdi was wearing when he began composition. And what does Basso mean by “excellent” and “interesting”? Surely, he could use more incisive words.

        • oedipe says:

          An OK review of the review of the review, but you made no mention of the cursory mention of the singer(s).

        • manou says:

          I now feel compelled to review Kashania’s review -- five stars out of five. Anyone who disagrees with my assessment is not a true aesthete of the highest sensitivity and discernment.

          • kashania says:

            Oooh! Does this mean that you will now quote me forevermore on any opera website to which you can gain access?

          • la vociaccia says:

            Ahh, but manou, you’re such a BORE! Where are the twitter quotes?

          • oedipe says:

            Geez, I disagree. Now you leave me no choice but to go hustle for some quotes!

            • Batty Masetto says:

              Oedipe, don’t trouble yourself. Here’s some tweet quotes just to make this complete (of course applying the same intellectual rigor we have all come to know and love from our role model here):

              @realhughjackman: Celebrating the success at Comic-Con. That bartender on the left sure looks familiar.

              @lindsaylohan: … Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly … up … us …

              @Joan_Rivers: Congratulations to Kate & William on the birth of their baby boy! So relieved that his name won’t include the words Ivy or Apple.

              @Pontifex: How many wish to be in Rio … but can’t!

              @justinbieber: Hello Boston

              @BarackObama: “Helen Thomas was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down … generations of women … .”

              @SarahPalinUSA: I’m no good at … Shooting … Todd…

              @SnoopDogg: …I have a VIP gift bag …

            • oedipe says:

              Why thanks, Batty! I was SO busy trending the royal baby and reading tweets on Ange’s latest wacko interviews that I had no time looking for quotes of my own. These come in real handy.

        • bassoprofundo says:

          :)

    • MontyNostry says:

      … and shouldn’t that be: ” … the fart **that** Verdi released on the morning he bought the ink.” ???

  • semira mide says:

    This DVD, too, was shown as part of the Opera in Cinema series a while back. It worked very well in the theater. I don’t care for Poplavskaya in Verdi ( can’t say why) and Otello is not among my favorite Verdi operas. But the audience was totally caught up in the music and the drama ( Muti certainly gets a lot of credit for this) and I would see it again. Probably the best Otello I’ve encountered.

    • luvtennis says:

      Cause she sucks? Just kidding POP Rocks!!!!!! No nutritional value and potentially fatal.

  • MontyNostry says:

    “The rest of the women are variable, with Daniela Pini‘s Meg Page rather anonymous …” Can anything be done with Meg Page to *stop* her being anonymous? She’s just there to fill out the ensembles, really.

    • Will says:

      An inventive director could find things for her to do that work with the plot and allow her some usable stage time. I don’t remember Rosalind Elias as being a cypher in the original Zeffirelli production at the MET by any means. Of course, he was still something of an artist then and not a spectacle-obsessed egotist; she was so lively and beautiful that it was hard not to see and enjoy her work.

  • Porgy Amor says:

    I agree with scifisci’s review as regards Muti, Antonenko, Poplavskaya, Alvarez, and the stage production. There is one thing I want to add, as a warning or an encouragement, depending on one’s inclinations:

    All three of the widely circulated recorded Otello performances conducted by Riccardo Muti — this one, the 2001 Scala DVD with Domingo/Frittoli, and the 1980 Florence live recording with Cossutta/Scotto — use the 1894 Paris revision of “A terra si!” at the climax of Act III. The differences are considerable. The 1894, I feel, brings the greater on-stage dramatic clarity and musical concentration that Verdi was going for, and it is not without new incidental beauties all its own (there are some striking harmonies). The 1887 premiere edition we hear in non-Muti performances is grander and more majestic. Rather than saying I prefer one or the other, I will say I am glad a major Verdi specialist has let us hear the rarer option with various casts and orchestras.

    The Salzburg Otello is one of the very good DVDs (Barbara di Castri’s Emelia is also lovely), so points to C-Major for including it in this series. I marginally prefer Muti’s first DVD, for Domingo’s dramatic performance, the piquant, atmospheric playing of the Scala orchestra, and a better production by Graham Vick. Both are recommendable, though.