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PERFORMING ARTS : ON THE RECORD : From Verdi: 'Otello' and 'Falstaff'

December 04, 1994|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

Deutsche Grammophon's new "Otello" (439 805, two CDs) is noteworthy among recent Verdi recordings for the presence in two difficult-to-cast leading roles of singers with imposing and reliable--not merely make-do--voices that are employed to create character and to convey some of opera's grandest music and words.

We're talking about Placido Domingo in his third recorded go at the title role and Cheryl Studer's first recorded Desdemona.

This is not a production dominated by a superstar conductor and his super-orchestra, although Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestra of the Bastille Opera--who will have parted company (Bastille's loss) by the time these words appear--are positive factors, as is the lusty Bastille Opera Chorus.

Domingo may have lost something in amplitude and altitude since both his 1978 RCA recording under James Levine and the soundtrack, conducted by Lorin Maazel, of the 1985 Zeffirelli film (on EMI Video and CD), but his portrayal here is even more intensely dramatic, his characterization more complex and sympathetic than on either earlier occasion. Some good things do get even better with age.

Studer's detractors credit her versatility to a lack of distinctive vocal timbre, while supporters, this listener among them, continue to admire the intelligence of her portrayals and the solidity of her instrument: no wobbling, no shrieking, no fudging in matters of pitch. And here, to complement Desdemona's compliant sweetness, Studer projects every bit of steel that Shakespeare and librettist Boito allow her.

The production would have been an outright marvel if the third principal were as imposing. But Sergei Leiferkus' baritone lacks the burliness of an ideal Iago, and he is not comfortable in the Italian language. His response to these shortcomings is lots of snarling and artificial voice-darkening.

Still, there's some compensation in the Russian singer's attention to Verdi's dynamic markings, and he even possesses a serviceable trill. Leiferkus' strongest moment comes in the Act III exchange with Cassio (a flavorful bit by tenor Ramon Vargas), where he becomes the devilishly clever schemer his creators intended.

Chung's conducting has its impatient moments, but his interpretation is intelligently conceived and atmospheric.

Particularly impressive is his shaping of the all-revealing Otello-Desdemona confrontation culminating in "Dio! mi potevi." Chung also shows a wise regard for the value of holding something in reserve en route to the biggest climaxes, e.g., in "Si, pel ciel."


Riccardo Muti adds his name to the list of distinguished con ductors to record Verdi's last word on the subject of opera, "Falstaff" (Sony 58961, two CDs). This live recording employing the orchestra and chorus of La Scala, where the performances from which it derives took place in June of 1993, is as much Muti's show as the famous 1950 NBC radio performance was Toscanini's.

This, however, is not one of Muti's mad dashes. The pacing is varied according to the dramatic situation, but devoid of expressive rubato and dynamic subtlety.

Thus, the would-be dazzlingly witty opening sequence in the Garter Inn falls flat. The Merry Wives' letter-reading scene is rhythmically rigid and rushed, adding to Daniela Dessi's already pronounced flutter in Alice Ford's higher-lying music and robbing the scene of its giddy charm.

Elsewhere, Roberto Frontali's Master Ford is a dramatic cipher outside the confines of his aria, which he delivers spiritedly, if without much vocal allure.

But what of the title role? Well, the Spanish baritone Juan Pons does more singing , as differentiated from vocal mugging--and with commendable accuracy--than most Falstaffs, and he is as ingratiating as his niggardly boss (Muti) will allow. It would be nice to hear Pons in less inhibiting circumstances than here, where Falstaff is too much a function of the conductor's efficient, joyless concept of what this most humane of operas is about.

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