Otello, Carnegie Hall

This makes the score one of particular
delight to an instrument as skilled and as superbly led as the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra (and its equally illustrious chorus), and the opera’s appeal
clear to its director, Riccardo Muti, a former music director of La Scala.

When, at sixteen, I told my father that I had discovered opera, he got me my
first opera recording: the von Karajan Otello with Del Monaco and
Tebaldi, both singers considered definitive interpreters of the roles at that
time. (In the Rome Opera House, there is a wall-size bronze plaque dedicated to
Del Monaco, with his profile and the bar lines for Otello’s opening
“Esultate…,” a terrific way to remember a tenor, eh?) I
listened to this first recording devoutly, and then encountered the opera in
performance in perhaps Franco Zeffirelli’s finest bit of stagecraft at
the Met, under Bˆhm, with Zylis-Gara, Vickers and Milnes singing and acting it
superbly. And there have been many great Otellos for me since then
(McCracken, Domingo, King, the frighteningly quiet Willow Song of
Pilar Lorengar, the horrifying Iago of Wassily Janulako), but there were things
in the orchestration that I had not noticed until the Chicago’s
performance before a packed Carnegie Hall last Friday. This points up one of
two advantages about a concert performance of an opera (the first being that no
stage director to distract you from the piece being performed with his own
irrelevance): You can hear the orchestra more clearly, often playing with more
care, than you can in the opera house, where there is a covered pit and the
distractions of the stage and the attention (and the limelight) squarely on the

Riccardo Muti, who has conducted hardly any opera in this country, got his
start in the opera house and his original fame as a stickler for the letter of
the score. This has led to many productions of operas of an earlier era that
aficionados deplore as lacking the high spirits that idiosyncratic singers (of
the best sort) could bring to them. Muti’s attention to detail, to the
symphonic picture and to dramatic propulsion suits some operas better than
others, and Otello is a case where the composer knew just what he
wanted and took infinite pains to achieve it. Muti has great fun with it,
reaching out to each section with clutching, pleading hands, wooing them into
the dynamic he desired. There were times during the lighter, merrier moments
with which Verdi intended the dark drama to be studded—the drinking song,
the “flower” chorus, the “handkerchief” trio in Act
III—that an airier spirit sometimes eluded his attention, but placing the
Chicago Symphony in the hands of such a technician produces gilded, glowing
effect upon effect, each tremolo wind in perfect tune (from sighing violins to
threatening, murmurous basses), each thunderous brass outburst ideally

The singers, all well chosen, were not in quite such superlative form as the
orchestra and chorus. Aleksandrs Antonenko, singing though ailing, in Italian
rather better than his French in last year’s Les Troyens at the
same hall, demonstrated real tenor ping (as the aficionados say) on
Otello’s abrupt rises from the conversational to the furious and was
never overwhelmed by the orchestra. His quieter, more tragic moments were
affecting as well. Krassimira Stoyanova, who has sung Desdemona to acclaim from
Vienna to Barcelona, was occasionally flat in the Act I love duet, but her
placid, dignified bewilderment in the rest of the opera was true and sweet, her
Willow Song and Ave Maria quietly devastating. Carlo Guelfi, not always the
most exciting of baritones, sang a worthy, menacing Iago, with diabolic energy
to his cries of “O gioia!” as his wicked plots moved to fruition.
Juan Francisco Gatell’s Cassio and the few (but full and lovely) notes of
Barbara Di Castri’s Emilia made one eager to hear more of their singing.
Only Eric Owens, the growling Lodovico, proved a disappointment.

John Yohalem

image_description=Riccardo Muti
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
product_by=Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Desdemona: Krassimira Stoyanova; Iago: Carlo Guelfi; Emilia: Barbara Di Castri; Cassio: Juan Francisco Gatell; Rodrigo: Michael Spyres; Lodovico: Eric Owens. Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Riccardo Muti. At Carnegie Hall, April 15.
product_id=Above: Riccardo Muti