Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Signposts on the steep path of Otello's downfall


[Click to enlarge.]
Now and forever farewell, blessed memories!
Farewell, sublime enchantments of her thought!
Farewell, shining battalions; farewell, victories,
flying arrows and flying steeds!
Farewell, triumphant and sacred banner,
and reveille ringing shrilly in the morning!
The clamor and song of battle, farewell!
The glory of Otello is here at an end!

Francesco Tamagno (t), Otello; piano. Victor, recorded February 2003 (digital transfer by Tim Ecker) -- for some notes on this recording, see below

by Ken

We've been ruminating about and eavesdropping on Verdi and Boito's Otello and his monstrous fall, and last week I posed the question of how the Moor of Venice sinks from the ecstatic raptures of the Act I Love Duet to the moment in Act III when he browbeats the innocent Desdemona lying in the dust by his hand ("More Vickers -- 'Otello fu,' how he gets from here to there").

I would like to answer that more fully, but for now we're just going to signal a pair of signposts along the way, as the poisons his lieutenant "honest Jago" dumps in his mind take hold, in the form of the lie that Desdemona is having an affair with the Moor's former lieutenant, Cassio. Then next week I hope to flesh these moments out.

Otello: Act II, Otello "Tu, indietro" . . . "Ora e per sempre addio"
OTELLO: You! Stand back! Flee!
You have bound me to the cross! Alas!
More horrible than any horrible injury
is the injury of suspicion!
In the secret hours of her lust
(and they were stolen from me!) was by breast agitated
by no omen? I was bold, happy.
I knew nothing yet; I didn't feel
on the divine body that I adored
and on her lying lips
the burning kisses of Cassio! And now, and now . . .

Now and forever farewell, blessed memories!
Farewell, sublime enchantments of her thought!
Farewell, shining battalions; farewell, victories,
flying arrows and flying steeds!
Farewell, triumphant and sacred banner,
and reveille ringing shrilly in the morning!
The clamor and song of battle, farewell!
The glory of Otello is here at an end!

[from "In the secret hours of her lust"] Enrico Caruso (t), Otello; Victor Orchestra. Victor, recorded in New York City, Dec. 28, 1910

Mario del Monaco (t), Otello; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Georg Solti, cond. Live performance, June 30, 1962

Jon Vickers (t), Otello; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, July 30, 1971

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Carlos Kleiber, cond. Live performance, Dec. 7, 1976

Luciano Pavarotti (t), Otello; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded live in concert, April 1991

The great heroic tenor Francesco Tamagno was 36 when he created the role of Otello at La Scala in February 1887, but 52 and semi-retired when he recorded three excerpts, in February 2003: Otello's entrance, "Esultate"; the scene at the end of the opera following his murder of Desdemona, "Niun mi tema"; and the performance we heard above of the Act II outburst "Ora e per sempre addio." At least four takes have been circulated, and they're noticeably different, perhaps nor surprising when we hear his sort of improvisatory, embellished approach -- and all much slower than the composer's metronome marking, which we see above.

But notice that Enrico Caruso too sings "Ora e per sempre addio" a lot more lyrically than the virtual battle cry we're accustomed to. Would they actually have sung it this way (a good deal slower than Verdi's metronome marking, as we see above) in the theater? Who knows?

Otello: Act II, Otello-Jago duet, "Oh! mostruosa colpa!" . . . "Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro"
OTELLO: Oh, monstrous crime!
JAGO: I have related but a dream.
OTELLO: A dream that reveals a fact.
JAGO: A dream that can give form of proof
to another indicator.
OTELLO: And which?
JAGO: Have you sometimes seen in Desdemona's hand
a handkerchief embroidered with flowers and finer than gauze?
OTELLO: It's the handkerchief I gave her
as my first token of love.
JAGO: That handkerchief, yesterday -- I'm sure of it --
I saw in the hand of Cassio!
OTELLO: Let God give him a thousand lives!
One is too poor a prey for my fury!
Jago, my heart is ice!
Far from me, pitying phantasms!
All my vain love I blow at heaven --
see, it's gone!
In its snaky coils
the hydra entwines me.
Ah, blood! blood! blood!
[He kneels..]
Yes, by marbled heaven I swear,
by the jagged lightning flash!
By death, and by the dark
death-dealing ocean flood!
In fury and dire compulsion
shall thundebolts soon rain
from this hand that I raise outstretched.
JAGO [preventing OTELLO from rising and kneeling alongside him]: Do not rise yet!
Witness, you sun that I gaze on,
which lights me and animates
the broad earth and the vast soul
of all Creation,
that to Otello I dedicate I zealously dedicate
my heart, my arm, and my soul,
if his will arms itself for the bloody work!
OTELLO and JAGO [aising their arms to heaven as if swearing a solemn oath[: Yes, by marbled heaven, etc.
God the avenger!

Enrico Caruso (t), Otello; Titta Ruffo (b), Jago; Victor Orchestra. RCA, recorded in New York City, Jan. 8, 1914

Jussi Bjoerling (t), Otello; Robert Merrill (b), Jago; RCA Victor Orchestra, Renato Cellini, cond. RCA, recorded 1951

Ramón Vinay (t), Otello; Paul Schöffler (bs-b), Jago; Vienna Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, 1951

James McCracken (t), Otello; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Jago; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded Aug., Oct., and Nov. 1968

Plácido Domingo (t), Otello; Sherrill Milnes (b), Jago; National Philharmonic Orchestra, James Levine, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded August 1978

As I wrote when we first heard these excerpts, in the July 2014 "Ghost of Sunday Classics" post "It's a barely fathomable distance dramatically from the end of Act I to the end of Act II of Verdi's Otello":
The Caruso-Ruffo recording, their only published recording together, is indisputably classic, and not just for the fact that they sang together so infrequently. Note that this performance is the opposite of quick, producing a 4:43 78 side that can't have been easily managed in 1914. And while it seems unlikely that Jussi Bjoerling would have attempted the heavyweight role of Otello even if he had lived to finish out his career, and Robert Merrill was still some years from taking on Jago, their "Sì, pel ciel" is pretty darned special.

Among the other performances, we hear some less-than-ideal things but also many good things, and different sorts of good things. This isn't the best singing you'll hear from the Chilean Heldentenor Ramón Vinay, but Otello was a special role for him. In his broadcast legacy he is the Otello of both Toscanini and Furtwängler! We might have done some comparisons, but I didn't have either of my CD editions of the Toscanini Otello at hand, and I was already doing more LP dubbing than I wished. We might also have listened to Vinay, originally a baritone-to-tenor convert, back in the baritone range as Jago, but that would also have involved more LP dubbing, and I decided enough was enough.)

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