Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
Limelight, August 15, 2020
by Justine Nguyen
Kaufmann is a vital, virile Otello but perhaps the biggest star is the orchestra under Antonio Pappano.
Those who doubted whether Jonas Kaufmann truly had the goods for Otello when he made his debut in 2017 at the Royal Opera House will find much to appreciate here. The recording studio is mercifully more congenial to the tenor’s moderate-sized voice, which means he’s able to focus more on characterisation rather than just pumping out the notes. Recorded last summer in Rome with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Antonio Pappano, it’s very much worth a listen.

Kaufmann is a vital, virile Otello, and many aspects of his portrayal are terrific. What his voice lacks in power, he makes up for in dramatic intensity, and you come to understand the character’s deep-seated neuroses well. The burnished, trumpet-like sound he brings to certain phrases is thrilling, and he manages to genuinely send a shiver up the spine when he begins to suspect that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. As on stage, his portrayal emphasises Otello’s nobility, making his fall from grace all the more violent. Most special of all is the way he registers Iago’s deception in the opera’s final moments – the stunned tone he deploys suggests total psychological collapse, while the dagger thrust of the last bacio is rendered almost like a death rattle.

Italian soprano Federica Lombardi is new to the role of Desdemona, and her inexperience does reveal itself in some less imaginative phrasing and timidity of characterisation. One also wants crisper consonants. However, she ably rises to the dramatic challenges of the final act, splendidly passionate and wracked with fear and confusion. Her rich, dark soprano makes for an especially womanly Desdemona, and her Willow Song is appropriately haunting, settling like a cold weight in the stomach. She sounds simply gorgeous opposite Kaufmann in their act one love duet.

As Iago, Carlos Álvarez invests his portrayal with a wealth of subtle detail, such as the curl of the lip as he fabricates Cassio’s incriminating dream, and the insinuating pianissimo as he warns Otello of the dangers of jealousy. He delivers the Credo powerfully, and gives an intentionally dead-behind-the-eyes quality to some of Iago’s faked exuberance that’s really quite chilling. He’s an excellent foil for Kaufmann.

The supporting roles are well-cast, especially Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan as a sweet-toned Cassio and French mezzo Virginie Verrez as a sympathetic Emilia.

But perhaps the biggest star is the orchestra under Pappano, who more or less steal the show. He conducts with his customary passion and scrupulous musical detail, but you sense that his interpretation of the opera has sharpened too. His reading is grittier, strings almost slashing in places, and there’s a drive to certain passages that are exhilarating. The Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia are also brilliant, supernaturally cohesive and dramatically alert.

We all bemoan the lack of full opera recordings nowadays – here’s a great one.

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