There are only a handful of stars now for whom a major label
will finance a full studio recording, and in the top three is
Jonas Kaufmann, whose debut in the title role of Verdi’s Otello
was the hottest ticket at the Royal Opera House three years ago.
People still argue over how successful that first assumption
was, but with this recording he puts his own stamp on it.
Kaufmann’s Otello starts out as less the swaggering hero, more
the serious commanding officer, and as he becomes more and more
defined by his own instability he alternates between a taut,
intense tone of anger and certainty and a less tightly focused,
more burnished voice full of doubt – at times it’s almost a
Jekyll-and-Hyde-type characterisation, but a subtler one than
that might suggest. He dies well: quietly and movingly.
His Desdemona is a relative newcomer, Federica Lombardi, whose
light and fresh-sounding soprano plays up the young bride’s
innocence beautifully. There’s a little more depth to Verdi’s
characterisation of her than she conveys here, but it’s not one
of the composer’s most rounded roles: he, like Shakespeare and
everyone else, was much more interested in Iago. He sounds
properly dangerous as sung by Carlos Álvarez – forceful but
smooth, he’s as much in control as Otello is volatile, and he
sings his nihilistic Credo with relish, the orchestra hurtling
along with him until the mention of death brings a moment of
pause to make your skin crawl. Here and elsewhere, Antonio
Pappano’s pacing wrings all the drama out of the music, without
semaphoring or turning self-conscious. Whether building the
mounting urgency of Otello and Desdemona’s confrontation or
weaving the web of Iago’s deceit as he frames Cassio, Pappano
gets an unflaggingly vivid performance from his Rome orchestra,
and you could argue that the odd rough edge in the choral
ensemble just adds to the drama. This Otello may be Kaufmann’s
showcase, but it’s Pappano who really makes it sing.