Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
The Classic Review, June 24, 2020
David A. McConnell
Review: Verdi – Otello – Kaufmann, Pappano (2020)
Studio produced opera recordings are relatively rare in today’s market, so kudos to Sony Classical for investing in this new release. Doubly so, because this is Sony’s second go at the work with this tenor and conductor: in 2018 they released a DVD featuring Kaufmann with Pappano conducting forces of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. That performance received considerable acclaim, so one is right to wonder why Sony decided to re-record the opera under studio conditions. (The answer is revealed in the liner notes). And more to the point of this review, is this new CD markedly different (and better?) than the earlier recording?

The DVD performance is exceptionally fine, featuring consistently beautiful singing and an accompanied of passionate urgency by Pappano and his pit. Kaufmann’s earlier performance is keenly intelligent, though, in comparison to Jon Vickers’s reading, Kaufmann offers a more limited emotional range. His Desdemona in the DVD version, Italian soprano Maria Agresta, is more problematic. Her sound is beautiful, but too careful and studied. A lack of chemistry between the two is more apparent when comparing Vickers and Mirella Freni in Karajan’s recording. And while the orchestral playing is technically immaculate, the pursuit of that correctness sometimes leaves one admiring the sound rather than engaging with the emotions of the story.

These issues are not found in the new recording: opening with a visceral storm scene, the listener is immediately drawn into the citizen’s fear as they watch Otello’s ship struggle to safety. Orchestra and chorus are sensational, and Pappano drives the music inexorably forward. Kaufmann’s initial entrance (track 2) is more striking than in the earlier recording: his deeply burnished coloring and stentorian delivery conveying Otello’s charismatic authority.

More importantly, Federica Lombardi’s Desdemona is a fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional character, and her many interactions with Kaufmann ring emotionally true. Sample “Già nella notte densa” (CD 1, track 9): achingly beautiful strings set the scene, the intimacy between Otello and Desdemona touchingly conveyed through the varied colors employed by both singers.

How differently their interaction sounds in the third act’s public accusation scene (CD 2, tracks. 10-14). Lombardi completely conveys Desdemona’s wounded pride and genuine confusion at Otello’s abusive treatment, while Kaufmann’s fine acting ensures we feel Otello’s descent into madness. The ensemble singing in “Quel innocente un fremito” (track 15), which presents several conflicting ideas concurrently, is an absolute thrill.

Lombardi’s “Ave Maria” is innocently sung (track 20), and Kaufmann’s emotional swing between raging jealously and the realization that he murdered an innocent Desdemona, is heart-breaking. Carlos Álvarez’s portrayal of Iago, the aggrieved, treacherous schemer, is chilling.

Sony’s engineers provide a natural, wide-ranging and unrestricted bloom that never sounds congested, even at the largest climaxes. The liner notes are both interesting and problematic: interesting in how they describe Verdi’s reticence in writing the work, as well as Kaufmann’s patience in tackling the role; problematic because the offer little discussion of the music or its masterly libretto, which is given English, German and French synopsis but no full translation, at least not in the booklet The Classic Review has been given. Translations are an absolute necessity to full enjoyment and understanding of opera. It seems like a disservice to send international buyers of this release to the internet for a full libretto translation.

In all other ways this is a first-class production, and certainly belongs among the upper echelon of Otello recordings, especially those produced in the last 30 years. Recommended.

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