Just as Othello is a difficult play to bring off in the theatre, so Otello is a difficult opera to bring off out of it. It is not for nothing that the 1938 Panizza Otello, recorded live at the New York Met is in a class of its own. Since the sound is terrible, It is not a performance I am much tempted to return to. Yet there is no denying the visceral charge of a superb cast, superbly conducted, live in the theatre.
For some years now, Domingo has been, on stage, the greatest Otello of our age—witness the very fine Covent Garden production on a 1992 LaserDisc and Video Cassette (Pioneer and Castle respectively, 9/93) with Sergei Leiferkus as Iago Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona and Solti conducting. On record, though, he has had less success. The 1978 RCA set, conducted by Levine, was frankly a trial run. After this he was caught in the toils of a Zeffirelli film, strangely conducted by Maazel, the oddly muted soundtrack of which was issued by EMI. Both sets are still in the catalogue though neither is recommendable, not least because neither of the Iagos—Sherrill Milnes for Levine or Justino Diaz for Maazel—is up to much technically or theatrically. Leiferkus is both.
Leiferkus and Domingo have worked closely together in the theatre; and it shows in scene after scene—nowhere more so than in the crucial sequence in Act 2 where Otello so rapidly ingests Iago's lethal poison. By bringing into the recording studio the feel and experience of a stage performance—meticulous study subtly modified by the improvised charge of the moment—both singers help defy the jinx that so often afflicts Otello on record.
Leiferkus is not a great colourist. If there is a point at which he seems to fall short of the letter of Verdi's score (or, rather, Giulio Ricordi's Production Book) it is when he fails to make sufficient distinction between Iago's voice and the imagined voice of Cassio in the dream narrative ''Era la notte''. Toscanini's Iago, Giuseppe Valdengo, whom Leiferkus to some extent resembles, is rather more effective here. Yet listen to Leiferkus's phrasing of Cassio's first murmurings and you will hear how effortlessly he meets Verdi's technically demanding insistence on the elision of two sentences, ''cauti vegliamo'' hypnotically grafted on to the word ''l'estasi'': natural caution subverted by passion.
The skill of Leiferkus's performance is rooted in voice and technique: clear diction, a disciplined rhythmic sense and a mastery of all ornament down to the most mordant of mordents. Above all, he is always there (usually stage right in this recording), steely-voiced, rabbiting obsessively on. We even hear his crucial interventions in the great Act 3 concertato. This is something of a miracle given the fact that Iago's plotting goes by the board in just about every recording except the RCA/Toscanini and the superbly 'staged' 1961 Decca production, masterminded by Culshaw and Karajan. (Or, perhaps more correctly, by Culshaw; in his 1973 EMI remake Karajan cuts the section in question!)
Otello is a role a tenor must live with for years, hoping the voice will retain its flexibility and sheen whilst at the same time acquiring fresh colours with which to meet new demands, new insights. This was Martinelli's achievement, and Vickers's; and it is Domingo's too.
He is in superb voice on the new recording; the sound seems golden as never before. Yet at the same time, it is a voice that is being more astutely deployed. To take that cruellest of all challenges to a studio-bound Otello, the great Act 3 soliloquy ''Dio! mi potevi'', Domingo's performance is now simpler, more inward, more intense. It isn't as he told one of DG's attendant journalists, his slowest performance to date. The Maazel is slower than this, a kind of ritual embalming. Rather, it is as though Domingo has rethought the role for the microphone, much as a great actor might adapt his Othello for the radio, or a singer might shift from the broad brush-strokes of theatre performance to the keener disciplines of Lieder-singing. It helps perhaps, that Domingo's voice has darkened, winning back some of its russet baritonal colourings. But in the end the genius of the performance lies in its ability to distil. Nowhere is this more evident than in the death scene itself. On the Maazel recording the final ''morta!'' is turned into a fermata, an egregiously self-contained dying fall. Now it is more or less in time, very simple, unerringly 'placed', no longer 'acted'. And ten times more effective.
Of course, Domingo is never quite as trumpet-toned as Martinelli. Nor does he attempt to portray Otello as a stricken visionary after the manner of Jon Vickers with Serafin in 1960 or more symbiotically, with Karajan in 1973. In the later of those recordings, at the moment where Otello twice intones the name of the dead Desdemona, Vickers's voice takes on a quality such as we haven't heard before—the voice of a man who is, almost literally, beside himself with grief. The problem is that away from these sublime manifestations of Vickers's art this Berlin-made EMI set too often slumps back into the worst kind of German bombast.
Chung's conducting, by contrast, is almost disarmingly vital. Verdi's scoring is more Gallic than Germanic (though less so than the scoring of Falstaff which I should like to hear Chung conduct). The score sounds very brilliant in the hands of the excellent L'Opera-Bastille orchestra, and, in Act 4, very beautiful, though never quite as breathtakingly beautiful as on Karajan's earlier set with the Vienna Philharmonic.
That said, Chung's conducting has its limitations. He seems especially wary of those emotional depths—expanses, what you will—that sit in the score's main shipping-lane like Scylla and Charybdis, wrecking those who try to sail briskly by, dragging under those who are tempted to linger too long. No one steers a better course than Serafin on RCA (Toscanini, too, who gets better orchestral playing than Serafin). Verdi's score is littered with restraining marks. Iago's ''Credo'' is marked Allegro sostenuto; yet Chung goes quickly, staying in tempo at the fanfares of fig. E, and hustling Leiferkus. Otello's ''Ora e per sempre'' is marked assai ritenuto and larga la frase; Chung isn't unduly quick, but the rhythmic infrastructure is muddled and unclear. The oath-swearing ''Si, pel ciel'' has a splendid swing to it, but the marking is molto sostenuto. And so on. And yet, as I say, Chung's freshness is all gain. He is already a master of the big ensemble, and the line of an act. Tension rarely slackens. Where it does the mixing and matching of takes is probably to blame.
If I have found reservations creeping in about some of the conducting, the reverse is the case with Cheryl Studer's Desdemona. Her very ubiquity sows doubt in the critic's mind and it is tempting to look for faults: a less than perfectly sounded top A flat near the start of the love duet, and a distinctly uncertain one at the end of the ''Ave Maria''. (And for real nigglers, a break in the line in the love duet at ''sofferti e le catene''—''not the kind of thing you'd catch Margaret Price doing, dear''.)
And yet Studer's is a carefully drawn portrait of a chaste and sober-suited lady. Perhaps Verdi had a sweeter-voiced singer in mind for this paragon of ''goodness, resignation, and self-sacrifice'' (Verdi's words, not Shakespeare's). Te Kanawa, in the Covent Garden video, brings us close to this. Studer's oboe tones keep us at a certain distance. There is little of Rysanek's warmth and vulnerability (Serafin); nor anything that is going to dim my allegiance to Tebaldi, glorious as no one else quite is on the earlier Karajan set. And yet, after these two singers, and Rethberg with Panizza and Price with Solti, you will look in vain for a better Desdemona. What's more, Studer is a singer who can single-mindedly focus the drama afresh, as she does more than once in Act 3.
DG's recording is clear and unfussy and satisfyingly varied; Studer, in particular, is much helped by the beautifully open acoustic the engineers provide for the closing act. It is not a Sonicstage production after the manner of the Culshaw/Karajan with its grandstand view of the orchestra and the characters playing out the drama, as they do in Shakespeare, under Heaven's vault. But, then, no recording matches that.
Despite some occasionally less than enthralling singing of the comprimario roles, this is undoubtedly the best Otello the gramophone has given us since the early 1960s. It also happens to be the first time on record that a great Otello at the height of his powers has been successfully caught in the context of a recording that can itself be generally considered worthy of the event, musically and technically.'