Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
Operawire, APR 1, 2020
By David Salazar
CD Review: Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Otello’
Jonas Kaufmann & Carlos Alvarez Lead Nuanced Recording of Verdi Masterpiece
Any new “Otello” recording is usually the focus of major conversation.

The Verdi and Boito opera is undeniably one of the pinnacle works in the standard repertory, encompassing a vast array of emotional colors with some of the greatest music humankind has ever conjured up. And the world has seen some truly legendary recordings over the past century with some of the greatest interpreters in the three lead roles.

But we all know that when an “Otello” recording is released into the market, the number one question on everyone’s mind revolves around the tenor taking on the lead role.

This role is the Mount Everest of tenor repertory, to use a well-mentioned cliché. But what’s fascinating is that it isn’t one of the hardest roles in the opera world for the reasons people think it is. Sure, it requires a titanic voice that can blast out with a vengeance when the titular hero implodes emotionally and mentally over the course of the work. And many great tenors on record have managed this requirement quite well, none moreso than Ramón Vinay or Mario Del Monaco.

But Otello is actually challenging because more than having a tenor blast his sound for two hours, Verdi actually has Otello straddle a line between that extreme and another – piannisimo singing. This is where most interpreters fall short unable to sustain that dichotomy in the musical language. A look through the score will reveal more piano passages than forte ones, suggesting that Verdi really wanted Otello’s heroism to be demonstrated not just by his power, but by his grace.

Some tenors that have managed this balance quite well over the years would include Jon Vickers and even Plácido Domingo.

Then there’s Jonas Kaufmann, the subject of this review (his face dominating the main cover of the album, dwarfing even the title).

A Nuanced Take
Kaufmann is arguably one of the most magnetic artists singing today (while also being one of the most controversial for his constant bouts of cancelations). His magnetism derives from not only his movie star looks, but his technical precision and control which allows him to do seemingly anything with his voice. When at his very best, you feel that you are safe in Kaufmann’s hands and that his voice will take you wherever he wants you to go without the slightest indication of difficulty. That isn’t to say that what he is doing isn’t difficult, but that he makes it sound easy.

And this is perhaps the greatest trait of this recording from that standpoint. From a musical perspective, you would be hard-pressed to find a recording of this opera that is so layered and nuanced in its phrasing.

This is particularly apparent in the most lyrical passages where Kaufmann’s signature piano singing is able to work its magic. “Gia nella notte densa” is particularly inspired in this regard, the passage gloriously sung with an elegance and poise that many other Otellos with heavier voices simply can’t manage. The final high A flat on “Venere splende” is delicately emitted, expressing Otello’s gentle nature at its most captivating.

Another touchstone of this kind of delicate singing is undeniably “Dio mi potevi” where the tenor very rarely pushes the dynamics of his voice too far before the climactic moments of the aria. And while he imbues the opening phrases with a bitterness on “calma fronte,” he manages to express Otello’s deep suffering in one of the most captivating moments in the entire recording – a glorious diminunendo on the four-bar phrase “e rasegnato al volere del ciel” sung with one expansive, beautiful legato phrase on a single breath. It’s a moment of pure musical and dramatic tension coupled with vocal virtuosity that will undoubtedly make you rewind just to hear it once more.

A similarly elegant approach is given in “Niun mi tema” where Kaufmann manages truly wondrous contrasts between the dark and heavy colors of the opening stanza before shifting to a muted and weeping “E tu, come sei palida,” the latter passage heart-wrenching in how Kaufmann caresses every single word and note with utmost delicacy.

His coloring of the “Dio ti gioconda” is particularly breathtaking. On the opening line, the voice grows darker and one slowly feels hints of accents here and there, giving off a sense that Otello’s ready to burst out in anger at any moment. At the end of the duet, when he returns to this melody, he goes for a more gentle tone, but you can also feel a sarcastic bite on such words as “il mio pensiero č fello;” this underlying harshness makes the forte ascension to a high C on “quella vil cortigiana” all the more inevitable and exciting. It’s an effect that a lot of tenors manage with a harsher and more accented approach in the phrasing, but Kaufmann’s more subtle shading and shift from pure tenderness to fury sting all the more.

But it’s in the interstitial passages that Kaufmann often manages his greatest interpretive magic. Just listen to how he extends the phrase “Č il fazzoletto ch’io le diedi, pegno primo d’amor.” It’s an extremely slow tempo, but in its expansion and Kaufmann’s soft and pained singing, one feels Otello’s last hopes slipping away with every note he sings. It’s one of the most painful moments to listen to in this recording. Same goes for an earlier “Perchč fai tale inchiesta,” which exposes a deep concern with a softening of the tone from robust to muted.

And at the end of the third Act, he delivers “Anima mia” with a smooth legato imbued with an arid color that really drives home this feeling that he could strangle Desdemona here and now.

But what of the more intense moments that require vocal power and command?

The initial passages, “Esultate” and “Abbasso le spade” are delivered with vocal intensity and power that showcases Otello’s poise and strength, every word precise in its delivery.

The building of Otello’s rage throughout the second Act is always punctuated with some mesmerizing high Bs and B flats, the vibrato expansive and full, especially at the close of “Ora ed per sempre addio” and at the climax of “Si pel ciel.”

He meshes extremely well in the duets and other ensembles, with his Act three confrontation with Desdemona a particular standout. Emotionally, it feels like the climax of the entire interpretation and there is perhaps no more explosive moment in the entire recording than the ferocity of Kaufmann’s accent on “Giura e ti danna!” From there it’s a sparring match with soprano Federica Lombardi with Kaufmann building up an equally aggressive “Che? non sei forse una vil cortigiana?” After this duet, it feels like Otello grows colder and more distant in his fury, perfectly exemplified in the final duet with Desdemona, during which Kaufmann pulls back a bit in volume before slowly allowing Otello’s rage to build on the repeated “Nos,” which he delivers with a particularly unique inflection. His “Č tardi” is as intense as Kaufmann’s almost manages the intensity of the “Giura e ti danna!”

Listening to the album multiple times and honing on Kaufmann’s take, there is no doubt that this is a very thoroughly prepared and intelligent interpretation that heavily reveres and trusts the score. It’s still very much a Kaufmann interpretation with his signature vocal affects, but it’s all in the service of what Verdi delineated musically back in 1887.

A Caveat…
That said, for all of that incredible musicianship and virtuosity, one does occasionally feel a cautious control in much of Kaufmann’s vocal approach, leading to some of the most dramatically intense moments being somewhat restrained in their impact. As a listener, many of those beats lack the feeling of emotional spontaneity that gives them dramatic life.

After “Ora e per sempre addio (which, by the way, is the only moment in the entire recording where the tenor’s execution of the rhythms is noticeably sloppy and his voice sounds somewhat unsettled before making a heroic recovery on the final notes), Verdi offers the audience one of the most fascinating musical visions of confusion and rage boiling through a rising chromaticism in the orchestra. It builds and builds until exploding into violence whereupon Iago shouts for “Divina grazia difendidmi!”

Throughout the preceding passage, Otello’s rage builds and builds before he attacks Iago. And while Kaufmann manages the appropriate affects musically for the passage (clear articulation on every word and accents on the final triplets and quarter notes), you never really feel that his rage is boiling over and exploding in line with the orchestra’s crescendo. He doesn’t hit a wrong note or sing a phrase out of rhythm, but he doesn’t provide the emotional catharsis.

The same goes for Otello’s other big explosive moment at the end of the third act when alone, he succumbs to an epileptic seizure. Obviously one doesn’t expect the singing to become unintelligible or sloppy (though to be fair James McCracken did manage to make gold out of this approach, if your taste appreciates that), but Kaufmann, while certainly suggesting Otello’s weakening throughout the passage and imbuing the phrase with edge and accentuation, doesn’t manage to employ sufficient contrast throughout the passage to really give a clearer emotional progression.

Of course, one cannot overlook one fundamental fact – this is a studio recording where an artist must interpret passages several times on a day. Fatigue is very much a factor in this and there is no doubt that, especially in a role like this, a singer might be wont to not put it all on the line in one take. This isn’t the theater where you get one shot per night and you don’t want to miss it. You have multiple shots and sometimes, the best ones don’t make the record for a wide range of different reasons. Then there’s the issue of when and how this is recorded. Again, we are not privy to which order or passages were recorded when and how and how that might affect a singer (this particularly plays a part in another singer’s interpretation) and his or her approach.

Ultimately, I think it is safe to say that, on the whole, Kaufmann’s interpretation rarely ever misses even if it does feel there are a few things lacking here and there. It is is a very nuanced reading, perhaps moreso than any other commercial studio recording out there. And to be honest, after several listens in preparing this review, it grows on you more and more as you slowly let go of what you hoped to hear when you first approach it and start to discover what it has to offer.

Other Side of the Spectrum
While Kaufmann’s performance feels very much in control, for the most part, soprano Federica Lombardi’s is the complete opposite. You often don’t know what to expect from her. The reason for this comes from the very beginning of her first entrance when her approach, more than assertive, seems technically and musically questionable. Her first notes “Mio superbo guerriero” feature an unsettled vibrato that leads to some questionable intonation throughout. The high A flat on “Soavi” at the apex of the phrase audibly changes pitch mid-note; it might be forgivable in a live performance, but in a studio recording it is frustrating.

She also makes a very strident first entrance in Act two when, after hearing a very subdued and dream-like approach to “Dove guardi splendono,” the G sharp on “Splende il cielo” comes out airy and unfocused before the ensuing F sharp is heavily accented with wide vibrato, as is the rest of the phrase; it might be a splicing issue but it definitely feels out of place, making the phrase decidedly NOT the dolcissimo that the score calls for. It also simply makes Desdemona emerge from this angelic chorus as musically out of place. The high B natural at the apex of this passage before the quartet also sounds overly forced with unsteady vibrato.

This wide and often unsteady vibrato is a staple of her singing throughout the recording and in quieter passages, she seems to struggle to sustain the steadiness of pitch, especially on the highest of notes, such as the final A flat of the “Ave Maria,” which while sung pianissimo sounds airy and unstable.

To be fair, repeat listens suggest that a lot of this has to do with how the splicing and editing of the recording was executed, with Lombardi perhaps the most negatively affected by the process. Still, you can only go on what is offered and it often doesn’t help her.

That isn’t to say that Lombardi doesn’t impress in other moments and it’s impossible to not point out that her diction is without any doubt the most clear and precise of the trio of lead singers.

She can sing some truly elegant delicate lines, especially in the final scene when it’s all about her. Both the Willow Song and “Ave Maria” are sung with delicacy, the former with a melancholy ready to burst out with pain, an opportunity she amply takes at its climax when she delivers a heart-wrenching high A sharp.” The “Ave Maria” meanwhile features some of her finest legato singing with great precision in the middle register. You can feel Desdemona’s struggles slowly dissipate as she finds an inner peace, the sound growing warmer and more tender by the moment.

“Dio ti gioconda sposo” is also luxuriously sung, the soprano seemingly at her most poised in these opening lines. But its what happens afterward when she meets tęte-ŕ-tęte with her husband that you really feel Lombardi’s strongest contributions. She matches Kaufmann blow for blow, defending herself quite potently. Even if her vibrato on the highest notes might be a bit unwieldy for some, there is no doubt that in the dramatic context it fits seamlessly; you can feel Desdemona coming undone.

She is similarly effective in the concertato where her voice is given free reign to soar over the ensemble. And again, the edgier qualities of her singing depict a woman coming undone emotionally in the midst of a crisis she never anticipated. The intensity in these particular scenes make the more cautious and internalized vocal approach of the final Act all the more resonant.

Double Take
Then there’s Carlos Álvarez, who delivers arguably the finest track on the entire album with his “Credo in un dio crudel.” With studio recordings, there are often those moments when you are listening to something you have heard countless times before and you stop and rewind. Sometimes there is something that is off about the performance, but every so often there is something truly fascinating about what you just heard and have to hear again. It’s almost like you are discovering the piece once anew.

That is exactly what happens with the opening lines of the famed “Credo.” Alvarez, who to this point in the recording has delivered a rather elegant exploration of the character, suddenly turns up the intensity of his voice by widening the vibrato, his sound acquiring an edge and power that it had not had to that point. Iago sings a sequence of C naturals followed by D naturals, rising up to an E flat, Alvarez’s vibrato widening, almost becoming one with the underlying trills without any pitch instability; moreover, he delivers the opening phrase in one breath all the way to “Simile a se,” every single syllable clear but also swept up in a glorious legato. Just like that you have the devil wrapped up in a noble quality showing up precision and control in the most exciting of manners.

And coupled with the second half of the phrase, which climaxes with the baritone blasting everything he has on that final E flat on “Nomo,” this opening is so full of tension vocally and musically, that it becomes hard to top in the remainder of the aria (and recording for that matter). And yet somehow, he manages to find a way to do that.

Alvarez is constantly biting at the text throughout the “Credo,” creating menace, bitterness, and wry sarcasm throughout this emblematic text. All the high notes are delivered with assurance and poise, showing off his raw power. It’s almost like he’s at battle with every word and you can feel every blow he delivers with increasing strength. At the end, hhe feigns dread and anguish with each passing “E poi?,” until he victoriously erupts on the final “Č vecchia fola il Ciel.”

He shows a similar finesse for exposing his malicious intent during “Temete, signor, la gelosia!” wherein his voice takes on very soft complexion, growing coarser and more accented with each passing phrase, climaxing in a very aggressive trill. You can feel the fangs coming out.

These passages are contrasted by a more elegant approach in other lines, Álvarez’s Iago coming off as noble and heroic as Kaufmann’s Otello. The entire drinking song “Inaffia l’ugola! Trinca, tracanna” is pulled off with bravura, climaxing in increasingly potent and thrilling high high As. Same goes for the trio, particularly in the flighty “Questa č una ragna,” where every syllable and note is spot on.

Conversely, “Era la notte” rivals Kaufmann and Lombardi’s most beautiful piano lines, the legato silky and polished. There’s a thrill in his slender piannissimo singing during ““Desdemona soave! Il nostro amor s’asconda.” The aria seems to build in volume with the mirroring ““Il rio destino impreco” sung with a more full-bodied sound; some of the edits detract from the performance, but ultimately, the aria is wonderfully crafted, allowing for a fantastic transition into the act’s final moments. You feel like Iago, with each phrase building in sound and strength is goading Otello toward his established destination, building the stakes more and more.

Álvarez is a veteran in this role and if you have followed his most recent recordings, there is an increasing sense of growth and development with regards to his interpretation of this role. The ideal recording (and that’s assuming you only get one) is that which crystallizes an artist’s most mature approach to a role. This is undeniably the case with Álvarez.

Of the remaining cast members, tenor Liparit Avetisyan’s sweeter timbre provides a perfect counterpoint to Kaufmann’s more baritonal colors. There’s a gentle quality to his singing that is particularly evident in “Miracolo vago dell’aspo e dell’ago” and especially the concertato, where the mixing of the recording favors him for large portions.

The remaining players, including Carlo Bosi as Rodrigo, Riccardo Fassi as Lodovico, and Virginie Verrez as Emilia, manage their roles solidly.

Strong Suit
Then there’s the Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, which one could argue steal the show outright from all the soloists.

The Chorus is vibrant throughout and there is an excellent balance in the mixing of the different sections. This is most evident in the loudest moments, such as their first entrance in Act three where the voices rise up as one in tremendously glorious harmony. The same goes for the opening storm where the explosive prayer just knocks it out of the park as the first track on the album.

But it’s in “Dove guardi splendono” where this cohesion makes it mark. Usually a passage dominated by the higher voices to the detriment of the other sections, the sound mixing actually balances all the sections quite well, resulting in the emergence of a softer and delicate musical color. It’s a subtle touch, but it alters the feeling of the entire passage.

Then there’s the orchestra, which feels very much like a major player the entire album. Maestro Antonio Pappano has definitely been sharpening his interpretation, which moves into very aggressive territory throughout. The strings, in particular, benefit from this approach with Pappano pushing them to the brink in the upper reaches of the chorus entrance in Act three; you could almost hear the bows slashing against the bridge of the violins on the E string. It’s a gritty sound but exhilarating nonetheless. Pappano offers up a similar effect as the violins peak during “Si pel ciel (something that the von Karajan recording with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi also does extremely well).

During “Ora ed per sempre,” Verdi gives the violins mezzo-forte triplets on “Addio, vessillo.” You probably won’t even notice this little score detail in most recordings, but Pappano’s more present violins in this particular moment add to the intensity of the passage.

But these little subtleties are not limited to just the string section. In the run-up to the Act two quartet, Desdemona’s statements are punctuated by fortissimo dissonance in the woodwinds; it’s not like other conductors ignore them in other recordings, but they have a greater presence in this one, enhancing the discomfort they are meant to produce in the scene.

Another notable aspect of this recording is the incredible balance across the different sections. Pappano has a deft understanding of when to let the brass instruments take over and when it might be better to let them blend in with the overall instrumental tapestry. One of the reasons that the opening of the “Credo” is as imposing as it is, Álvarez aside, is how you can hear the force of every section integrated into one potent sound. In most recordings or performances, the brass and woodwinds take centerstage, to the detriment of the strings (a lot of conductors today tend toward this brass and wind heavy approach to Verdi’s operas, often resulting in a banda-like texture that undercuts the intensity of his music). But here, the presence of the strings gives the chorus an edge that strengthens the effect. Moreover, the trills underlying Iago’s opening statement also get greater harshness from the string and wind sounds being balanced as well as they are.

That isn’t to say that he doesn’t understand when to let one section dominate the other, as is the case with the codas for both Act two and three, where the brass instruments reign supreme to engrossing effect.

The tempo choices are recognizable in comparison to what one hears in most other performances of the opera, though he does allow some bandwidth to his singers to really stretch some phrases (Kaufmann’s “Il primo pegno” in Act two is a perfect example) for emotional effect. And he also slows down the Act three prelude, allowing the “Jealousy” melody to build greater tension throughout.

These kind of musical details are layered throughout the reading. They never feel intrusive or self-serving, but actually add to the dramatic intention of the music. Again, it’s one of those aspects of the recording that has you going back again and again to have another listen. The playing isn’t without errors (some violin runs are sloppy here and there in Act two), but in those notable mistakes the recording also seems to come alive in a way that a lot of recordings simply don’t.

The sound engineering has been mentioned intermittently throughout the review and for the most part Sony has done an excellent job. The overall sound quality is vibrant and alive, balanced and perfectly inline with the nuance the performers bring to their interpretations. As mentioned, there are moments where the editing of different takes together gets fudged, affecting some performers, such as Lombardi, more than others.

Ultimately, there will be a lot of people that already have their favorite “Otello” recordings and nothing this one does will sway you away from those. But there is no denying that in an era where the studio recording of opera is an endangered species, this is the kind of gift that you can’t overlook.

It’s clear that the artists involved, despite their varying degrees of success, put a lot of care and thought into this work and the result is undeniably memorable. As far as modern recordings of this opera go in the last 30 years, this is one of the better ones.

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