Otello (1959)

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Tucci, Del Monaco, Gobbi; Erede. Live. (1959). 126m. B&W. This video was transferred from a kinescope. Packaged in a black sleeve.
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Del Monaco produces gloriously stentorian tones throughout albeit with one occasionally off-pitch. Visually his is a more restrained Otello than, say, McCracken’s or Domingo’s. His technique was sheer perfection for the great dramatic tenor roles and held up splendidly for three decades.

Compared to Zanelli, Vinay, McCracken and Vickers, his middle voice is bright. This is possibly the prime and most neglected requirement for Otello: brightness enables the interpreter to cut through Verdi’s heavy orchestration. Tamagno, Zenatello, De Muro (who never sang the role but recorded the arias) and Martinelli had it.

I seem always to be in the minority in my unyielding admiration of Tucci in her prime. Singing more Verdi roles than any other soprano in Met history, she was, in reality, the leading Verdi soprano of the house for most of the time she appeared there. (She sang 153 performances of 11 Verdi roles to Price’s 118 performances of 5 roles plus the Requiem, and she spent many fewer seasons at the Met than did the truly glorious Leontyne). Tucci possessed the supreme post-Milanov pianissimo of any Verdi soprano. That pianissimo is heard often here in its first bloom, one year before her Met debut. Not a great actress but a sincere and often affecting one, at her best (and she is certainly that here) she can easily efface memories of some more highly regarded Italian sopranos of her own day–and perhaps all of the current crop. Healthy but not particularly large as sopranos go, she would tower over Del Monaco if not for his famous red-heeled boots that always added a few extra inches.

As good as Del Monaco and Tucci are, however, they almost pale before the onslaught of Gobbi’s Iago. What a performance! As noted often, Gobbi was quite possibly the greatest stage animal of his time. He could give an overwhelming theatrical performance, at the same time finessing both words and music. This is exactly what we get here: he bestrides the stage like a colossus, stealing every scene in which he appears. Big, burly and seemingly good-natured, the bite to his delivery of an Italian text should be the despair of all subsequent baritones. There is no way I can believe Verdi would have preferred Maurel to Gobbi, had he been lucky enough to hear the latter. Then, again, perhaps he really isn’t such a believable Iago at that. He appears everyone’s superior at all times and in every respect.

Anna di Stasio as Emilia, Mariano Caruso as Cassio, and Plinio Clabassi as Lodovico are all excellent, and Erede conducts to excellent effect throughout. The second-act rear projections for once give the impression that the action takes place in an open-walled part of a castle with a glorious sunlit day outside. Del Monaco is no less excellent in Video #4 [now deleted]. But you really have to have this Otello for both Tucci and, especially, Gobbi, who quite simply gives one of the greatest operatic performances you are ever likely to see.–Joe Pearce, President of The Vocal Record Collector’s Society

“Del Monaco was the finest Otello of my generation.”–Tito Gobbi, My Life

“Ora e per sempre addio” is missing from all video masters of this performance.

David McKee, reviewing in The Opera Quarterly

“Ecco il leone! Indeed, it is the lion of Venice, in the person of Mario Del Monaco, as regal as a lion and every bit as dangerous. The tenor’s preeminence as the Otello of his day is amply validated by this archival footage, which restores a crucial aspect of Del Monaco’s artistry–his physical performance, adding degrees of subtlety not always evident from his singing alone.

“Not that the latter is unimpressive. Del Monaco’s dramatic tenor is of a rare metal that cleaves the air as sharply as the scimitar he brandishes. Nor is he the purveyor of the unrelenting fortissimo that he sometimes seemed to be. Some of Del Monaco’s most telling moments here come across in his sotto voce utterances in moments of emotional nakedness or suggestibility, such as his despairing ‘O mostruosa colpa’ or the middle section of ‘Niun mi tema.’

“The tenorissimo sometimes spends his vocal capital recklessly, as in a full-tilt ‘Sì, pel ciel,’ which leaves him somewhat ‘sung out’ when act 3 begins. ‘Dio ti giocondi’ is launched with nasty, white tone that is very hit-or-miss, pitchwise. ‘Dio, mi potevi’ and the balance of act 3 are managed with a fair bit of a piacere ranting. By the time Otello arrives in Desdemona’s bedchamber, however, Del Monaco has recovered and finishes in majestic form.

“There’s an animal magnetism to Del Monaco, evident from his very first moment onscreen, adding an essential frisson to his artistry and displaying the same bracing impact as Marlon Brando’s contemporaneous film performances. His Otello is a very dashing, commanding figure, and the excessive alacrity with which Verdi and Boito bring the Moor’s jealousy to the boil (a process that consumes the better part of a half-hour in Shakespeare’s play) here works, given Del Monaco’s characteristic volatility. Even when slumping behind his desk, this Otello looks ready to spring like a jungle cat. Del Monaco also nails the underlying insecurity that makes the character such an easy pigeon for Iago’s wiles. The manner in which he fidgets and hangs his head while Desdemona pleads Cassio’s case is heartbreaking. When Otello must eavesdrop on Cassio and Iago while hiding behind a vast drape, like a Peeping Tom, Del Monaco brings the character’s shame forcefully home. With no disrespect to the considerable Otello of Plácido Domingo, not even the Spanish tenor is so strikingly vulnerable. Domingo’s Otello wears his heart on his sleeve. Coming from the dauntless Del Monaco, Otello’s collapse and humiliation are even more arresting. It’s a performance on a big, bold scale that I wonder if anyone might even dare to give today.

“Del Monaco can paint in primary colors because he’s playing opposite the subtlest of Iagos in Tito Gobbi. As great as some subsequent interpreters have been, Gobbi laps the field several times over in this role. Like Del Monaco’s, Gobbi’s singing is not conventionally beautiful, and both are given to oddly shallow vowel formations. Yet this proves a tremendous asset, as the baritone’s unique timbre oscillates unnervingly between jocularity and venom.

“This Iago is an outwardly bluff fellow, everybody’s best friend, the evil that goes unseen. Yet there is also a grandeur to his villainy: in the ‘Credo’ Gobbi could be Milton’s Satan inveighing against God. Gobbi’s baritone is an instrument capable of infinite modulations and gradations of color, with individual words given intriguingly mixed pigmentation and shades of meaning. ‘Era la notte’ is like a mini-opera in itself, with Cassio’s alleged confessions lent a creepy mezza voce. With tone, word, and gesture fused into one thoroughly symbiotic creation, Gobbi’s Iago has the same kind of impact that Victor Maurel, the role’s creator, must have owned. No wonder Verdi toyed with titling the opera Iago.

“Gabriella Tucci’s Desdemona is in fast company here and largely holds her own. She’s at her most expressive in cantabile, for her basically lyric instrument sounds shrewish when pressure is applied. Tucci sustains the long arch of the ‘Salce’ and ‘Ave Maria’ at a level with the best, and if she seems pleased with the sustained top A-flat that rounds off the the latter, she’s right to be. Unless someone should re-release Renata Tebaldi’s Berlin telecast or Renée Fleming’s 1995 Met opening-night performance, I don’t expect Tucci’s Desdemona to be superseded anytime soon on video.

“Anna Di Stasio registers as a compassionate Emilia and a substantial vocal presence, while Plinio Clabassi puts in a welcome appearance as Lodovico. The two supporting tenors are competent and Takao Okamura’s Montano more than that. Alberto Erede’s conducting is very ‘in the moment’ and responsive to what the singers are doing, albeit at the expense of the score’s larger paragraphs.

“Speaking of which, the act 2 quartet is truncated, as is the preceding choral ensemble, while the act 3 concertato is eviscerated. Admittedly, these cuts were frequent expedients in earlier decades. Nevertheless, they make Verdi’s musical construction sound weak when it is anything but.

“The staging has an uncomplicated, straightforward self-confidence that is refreshing to behold. True, there is a certain amount of mass gesticulation and gingerly swordplay, but that only adds to the charm. ‘Già nella notte’ is actually quite sexy, with a tender, intimate rapport between Tucci and Del Monaco that bespeaks a profound emotional bond between the characters–one that makes subsequent events all the more poignant.

“The scenic realization, with its wing-and-drop sets and unsteady cloud projections, might seem risible forty years on. However, they were probably state-of-the-art for 1959 and must have looked quite beautiful in the house.

“Technically speaking, the sonics have terrific presence (the prompter deserves solo billing), although the picture quality is somewhat lacking. This is a kinescope both grainy and (in act 1) sometimes quite murky, with occasional video glitches. Not only that, but ‘Ora e per sempre’ is missing, as are the first few measures of act 3.

“It would be easy to dismiss this performance on technical grounds. Personally, I’ve grown so accustomed to top-line picture and sound quality being lavished on wholly forgettable operatic presentations that I’ll take something as comparatively ‘primitive’ as this in order to experience the greats in action. In fact, the occasional roughness of the telecast enhances its immediacy, dispelling any suspicion of slickness or post-production fiddling.”

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