As he did in Florence 1980 (Scotto, Cossutta, Bruson; audio, various labels) and Milan 2001 (Frittoli, Domingo, Nucci; DVD, first TDK, then reissued by Arthaus), Riccardo Muti at Salzburg 2008 opts for Verdi's 1894 Paris revision of the Act III concertato. His are the only performances in my library, audio or video, that make use of this rewrite. As was so often the case when Verdi revised a movement (e.g. the quartet and various duets in DON CARLOS), the gain is in concentration and clarity. The progress of Iago's machinations as he flits from pawn to pawn is more clearly focal, as his lines are brought into sharper relief, while Desdemona's contribution is significantly adjusted. It is an intelligent alternative that Muti must believe should be respected as the master's final word. But I confess to missing the sheer majesty of the more familiar grand sprawl we usually get in its place.
As the doomed lovers at the heart of the tragedy, Aleksandrs Antonenko (b. 1975) and Marina Poplavskaya (b. 1977) demonstrate both the pros (energy and freshness) and cons (callowness) of casting young singers in this music. Antonenko's sound is pleasingly ripe, or still ripening; he handles very difficult music without apparent strain, and Muti elicits from him a remarkably clean, faithful reading. But he lacks something in stature. I've always thought it a vague, lazy criticism to say that someone's dramatic attitudes seem "externally applied," but I really felt that here. Antonenko seems to be acting the way he knows an Otello should act, rather than drawing on insights into emotional states that drive Otello to act in these ways. The performance is satisfying on a mechanical level without being fully convincing, and here I think Antonenko's obvious youth works against him. More recently, as Grigori/Dimitri in the Met's new BORIS GODUNOV, he might have been born to play his role. The Otello may be premature. The character's fear that his advancing age may be a factor driving Desdemona away, for example, does not resonate when expressed by Antonenko as it does in the video performances of Vickers and Domingo, who suggested greater gravitas overall. Without that gravitas -- without the feeling that we are seeing a great man in his maturity toppled by fatal insecurities -- Otello is just a ranting lout. The singing remains impressive, and one looks forward to hearing more from Antonenko. An apprenticeship in the Verdi roles that Domingo and Vickers sang prior to taking on Otello might be time well spent.
Marina Poplavskaya is physically perfect for Desdemona, who ideally should be or at least seem younger than her on-stage husband. Poplavskaya has the right patrician blond beauty, and her face makes a terrific camera subject. This is true especially in the final act, in which the scene with Emilia is lit by candlelight, creating wonderful shadow play on the elegant contours of the soprano's features. Poplavskaya uses her eyes expressively and does "pensive" better than she does anything, and this serves her well in that long passage of ominous tranquility, the Willow Song and Ave Maria. Elsewhere, despite knowledge that she has been criticized for being "cold" and "remote," I felt precisely the opposite -- that in the happier times of Act I and II, she seemed too accessible, too contemporary. I had difficulty accepting her as the Boito/Shakespeare shimmering ideal, the paradise from which Otello falls. Less than a regal "lady," one whose passion for Otello compels her to her own end (the subtitling stupidly omits a brief but crucial exchange in which Desdemona refuses Lodovico's offer of shelter), she is only a frightened girl in trouble. Perhaps someone else will respond to this human/verité Desdemona better than I did. I found some of the expressions of horror more appropriate to, say, IL TABARRO. The voice is very beautiful, and isolated effects are haunting. One hopes the style and the command progress to be wholly worthy of the instrument.
Carlos Álvarez can be a bland presence -- "a scowling stiff with a good voice," I meanly put it elsewhere -- but his bluntness actually serves him well as the almost elementally evil Iago of Boito, and specifically for the Iago of this production. His strong, focused singing and confident musicianship make him perhaps the best Iago on DVD (most of the others are unidiomatic, past their prime, or both). Smaller roles are nicely cast. Stephen Costello is a tremendous asset as a star-quality Cassio who makes Otello's jealousy quite plausible; Barbara Di Castri's Emilia is both lovely on its own terms and well contrasted with her mistress.
Director Stephen Langridge and set designer George Souglides inflict wounds on the opera without killing it outright. These days, that's enough for a gentleman's "C." Souglides's set design has everyone hopping on and off of what looks like a giant glass coffee table. When Iago makes a big show of smashing the thing at the end of Act III, it's nearly character redemption. A sword is stuck in the stage for most of the opera, and the handle makes it look like a cross, and I was about to go on about the twin themes of violence and religion but I started to doze off. In the first act, Otello more or less "presents" to the revelers what I assume is supposed to be an adolescent boy of the vanquished Muslims, and "Fuoco di gioia" is taken up with four choral tarts sexually harassing him. They force his face into lewd positions on their own bodies and then push him away, laughing at him, like more aggressive Rhinemaidens. Confused and frightened, he tries to flee, but bully boys on the sidelines force him back for more. Then his hands are tied and a cloth sack is put over his head, and if writing about the symbolic sword/cross in the stage didn't put me to sleep, discussing the parallels between Cyprus and Abu Ghraib would finish me off for certain. (By the way, since Otello turns the kid over to these bitches and thugs before leaving the stage for a while, he presumably sanctions this nonsense. As if it isn't hard enough to keep an audience sympathetic to Otello for the latter three-fourths of the opera, Langridge has to start making us dislike him right after "Esultate!"?) The boy then is put to work as a servant in the palace, I believe, because he gets to be the only person who sees and hears Iago's monstrous gloating at the end of Act III. (What a shame that they would never listen to a little Muslim boy. Tragedy could have been averted. O, steep wages of intolerance.) Suffice to say, the opera goes best when Langridge stays out of the way and lets it take care of itself, as in Act IV. The costumes are attractive.
The performance took place in August 2008, and from the looks of things, the air conditioning was out. Antonenko and Álvarez are frequently drenched, and the women probably are being rescued by their foundation. The camerawork is aggressively close, and not a bead of perspiration, an involuntary spray of spittle, or a saliva rope goes undocumented. The English subtitles would have been satisfactory in the VHS/LD era but are not up to the modern standard. Of course there must be condensation in the ensembles, but here there are curious lapses throughout the opera, in which lines go untranslated for no good reason.
The strongest personality involved, of course, is that of Maestro Muti. This is "his" OTELLO, first to last. Reports from some attendees were that the orchestra (VPO) was teeth-rattlingly loud, and whether it was overwhelming in a good or a bad way was something of a split decision. The singers are not drowned out on the DVD, however, nor do they seem to be struggling to be heard. The Viennese have had a long and fruitful association with Muti, and they give him a magnificent and luxurious account of the score. But for all their virtuosity, I find them less idiomatic than the Scala forces on Muti's earlier DVD. That performance, documenting Domingo's farewell to the title role, suffers only from a vocally worn and somewhat plain Iago (the Salzburg one is preferable), and of course the sixtyish Domingo had to husband declining resources carefully. Those are small debits alongside Domingo's pathos and mature artistry, the chemistry between him and leading lady Barbara Frittoli, and the stunningly atmospheric and evocative orchestral playing of the Milanese (I've never heard a more hair-raising accompaniment to the Drinking Song, or winds in the Act IV prelude better balancing the deeply sad and the sinister).
The 2001 Scala performance remains my first DVD choice in general, with a fleeting glance in the direction of Vickers and Scotto -- an equally moving duo in a less refined but effectively contrasting way -- on the recently released Met DVD of 1978.