VERDI: Otello (complete opera) – Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello)/ Krassimira Stoyanova (Desdemona)/ Carlo Guelfi (Iago)/ Barbara Di Castri (Emilia)/ Juan Francisco Gatell (Cassio)/ Michael Spyres (Roderigo)/ Paolo Battaglia (Montano)/ Eric Owens (Lodovico)/ David Govertsen (Herald)/ Chicago Children’s Choir/ Chicago Sym. Orch. and Chorus/ Riccardo Muti – CSO Resound multichannel SACD CSOR 901 1303 (2 discs), 136:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****1/2:

My benchmark for this piece, like for many other people as well, is the recording by Karajan on London with Del Monaco, Tebaldi, and Protti. It has great sound as well, though not nearly so spectacular as that found here on this new CSO Resound release. Otello might be Verdi’s greatest opera—the arguments will continue—and is certainly the most difficult. The subject matter itself, which is one of the greatest tragedies in the entire Shakespearian corpus, revolves around the demon jealousy, and as such can be easily over-projected and made into something almost farcical if not kept in check. Fortunately Verdi’s music does this itself for the most part, some of the most modern he ever penned, with the dramatic action kept tightly confined in scenes of great erudition and even brevity focusing on the essentials of the story—as much as that can be done—while not neglecting the variety of characters and the overall conception in terms of storyline.

I have read with some amusement the comments of people who have heard this recording and decided to review it on various shop sites, few understanding the mechanics of recording and especially listening to multichannel SACDs, and the necessary readjustment of listening expectations. It kind of reminds me of the monophonic advocates who hit the ceiling at the advent of stereo! Suffice it to say that this recording is spectacular in every way, easily the most advanced and wide-ranging this opera has had, with all voices in as natural and friendly aural surroundings as can be envisioned. There is very little to complain about here, with the wide-ranging and detailed sound exemplary it its capture of the phenomenal CSO at its best, and the twice-as-large-as-normal CSO chorus providing a seat-lifting experience for your ears.

The minor characters in this recording are all fine, though it hardly matters—no recording will be judged in this regard, and the Karajan has perhaps the best cast ever assembled in this regard. The three principals are essential—without quality performances in each role the effort will simply be wasted. Fortunately this one has that though there are controversies, firstly about the role of Iago played by Carlo Guelfi. His career has certainly given him the requisite dramatic skills to project this role properly, and he does so here as well, but this is after all an opera, and the singing must be considered first. On that account I am afraid that Guelfi is somewhat below par, certainly not on the level of Protti in the London recording, and for this reason I can’t give the set five stars. But I must admit that Guelfi does have his moments and gives some ravishing singing when his voice allows.

Otello to my mind has been owned by Del Monaco—though many disagree because of his supposed overacting and past-his-prime vocalizing, or so it is said. Nonsense! He did have this role down pat and even though he might well have been approaching the hill from which it is hard for any singer to come back, he was miles ahead of any other singer in this work and it showed in the recording with Karajan, even though there was a lot interpersonal drama in the creation of that recording. But I do think that Aleksandrs Antonenko equals him, in voice if not quite in acting ability, and the comments I have seen about him not being “Italian” enough are rather pedestrian and miss the whole spirit of Verdi, who was also not “Shakespearian” enough either for that matter! Antonenko can do it, and do it he does with spirit and a lot of energy.

But Otello, at least in Verdi’s conception, is really about the heroine, and Desdemona has to get it right or the boos come a-callin’. Tebaldi was still capable of some thrilling high notes in the Karajan, and I can really think of no other soprano as effective in the role—until now. Though many will complain about the innate Slavicization of the role, Krassimira Stoyanova comes across as a Desdemona for the ages. Her high notes are dead-on and perfect, and her natural temperament seems to lend distinct and controlled volatility to her performance that regulates the part to an exceptional degree, the right stuff at the right time—simply sensational.

Riccardo Muti would seem to be the best proponent of this music at this stage in his life. He allows the singers a lot more latitude than he would have ever countenanced in his earlier years, regularly insisting that so many sacred cows be slaughtered before a performance ever occurred, but here he has rethought himself and reconsidered many things previously rejected—among them allowing certain held high notes for dramatic effect, traditions once accreted and discarded. His tempi are upbeat but exceptionally reasonable and completely within accepted norms of Verdian performance practice. His vision of this piece is one that anybody who takes this opera seriously must consider. By the way, for this recording Muti opted to use the revised 1894 Paris version of Act III, something that had given Verdi and Boito fits at the time of the La Scala premiere, tightening up the work and giving it dramatic clarity over the idea of musical splendor. This has rarely been performed in this manner since 1894, and represents the final operatic thoughts of Verdi’s life. Muti decided early in his career to employ it, and has consistently maintained its superiority.

Again, I would not discard the Karajan, but it would not surprise me at all if when I wish to hear Otello this is the recording for which I reach.

—Steven Ritter