Verdi, Otello : (Concert Performance). BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 16.4.2011 (RJF)
Otello, Clifton Forbis
Desdemona, Barbara Frittoli
Iago, Lado Ataneli
Cassio, Alessandro Liberatore
Lodovico, Julian Close
Roderigo, John Pierce
What has gone round comes round again. Way back in May 1968, after major money raising, the Hallé Concerts Society were able to mark Sir John Barbirolli’s twenty-five memorable years with the orchestra by drawing together the conductor’s skills as a symphonist with his other great love and facility, with a concert performance of Verdi’s penultimate operatic masterpiece, Otello. This concert marked Gianandrea Noseda’s final concert as Musical Director of the BBC Philharmonic after an association lasting nearly ten years. Like his illustrious predecessor with the Hallé, Noseda has more than a passing interest in opera. Born in Milan, the city where Verdi died, where three hundred thousand citizens lined the streets to pay their respects as his cortege passed singing the famous chorus from Nabucco, often translated as “Speed your journey”.
Noseda was stimulated in his interest in opera, he told the pre-performance listeners, by the opening night of the La Scala season on December 10th 1968 when, as a fourteen year old, he saw the production on television. Those particular performances still mark high points in the annals of opera; its cast of Domingo as Otello, Mirella Freni as Desdemona and Pierro Cappuccilli as Iago, with Carlos Kleiber on the rostrum and the chorus on top form, has rarely been matched since. Nor is it likely to be. Noseda shared with the listeners the difficulties of casting any of Otello today. At the premiere in La Scala in February 1887 Verdi had had the benefit of the formidable Francesco Tamagno in the title role and wrote the music to fit his formidable robust tenor; likewise he had Victor Maurel as Iago. Casting the opera in these days of smaller, albeit more flexible voices, poses formidable challenges for opera houses and musical directors alike and that is not to forget the vocal demands on the soprano singing Desdemona.
Before the performance I was asked by friends what I expected. “I will tell you after the first ten minutes,” was my reply. Those opening minutes set the standard for any performance of Otello musically with the opening storm music, the chorus as they await Otello’s arrival on shore from the storm at sea and the returning hero’s declamatory opening at full voice without any warm up of the word Esultate!. Noseda set the Bridgewater alight with the vibrancy and violence of that orchestral opening. It was a magnificent start to his interpretation with the patina of the opera mirrored in the playing that he drew from the BBC Philharmonic members, who are now well versed in his demands and trust them implicitly. With the moods of the opera, from this violent beginning to the pianissimo of the opening of act four, to the melody of the love duet, and a myriad of other tiny details – he fulfilled Verdi’s intentions in every respect.
For this performance the management imported the London Symphony Chorus. Mancunians might consider this strange, as their own Hallé is not lacking strength in this department. However, it may well have been a consideration that the London singers had recently performed this opera under Colin Davis at the Barbican and on that basis rehearsal costs would be a minimum. As a body they were up to every demand which Verdi and Noseda made on them; their articulation of words and portrayal of children were particularly notable. Of the soloists Clifton Forbis in the title role opened the proceedings with a well-controlled Esultate and held plenty in reserve for the last act when Otello realises he has been duped by Iago and stabs himself. However, his tightly focussed, essentially lyric tenor, lacked the vocal heft and strength at the bottom of the voice to really bring the role to life and also lacked the physical presence to impose himself on the simple acting that helped the concert performance along. Whether aware of the histrionic demands of the last act, albeit short, Forbis gave short change in acts two and three with a lack of vocal bite in Ora e sempre addio (Now and forever farewell, sacred memories) and later, having called Desdemona a common courtesan, pushes her away and follows with the demanding Dio mi potevi (God! Thou could have rained upon my head every affliction). These omissions did little to compensate for a tender love duet at the conclusion of act one.
More in tune with the conductor, and the work itself, was the Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli. His easy stage presence, interacting with the other characters physically and vocally, conducting the stage proceeding as a kind of major domo figure, was allied to a strong Verdi baritone voice capable of variety of nuance and range of colour and expression. He has the odd dry patch in his tone, but his Credo was a tour de force and in a theatre performance would have stopped the show; Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona matched him vocally. Hers is a classic Italian lyric soprano voice that she uses with the utmost sensitivity to the demands of the music and conveying the story. It would be difficult to match her act four Willow Song and Ave Maria on any stage in the world today. My notes use terms such as “full warm voiced”, “sensitive”, “expressive pure lyric tone at the service of the words and mood of Verdi’s music”.
All the minor roles were well sung. It was good that John Pierce as a distinctive Roderigo (who is representing Wales in the forthcoming BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition) and Julian Close as Lodovico are former alumni of the neighbouring Royal Northern College of Music and are making progress in the profession. Madeleine Shaw, Royal Scottish Academy trained, sang a strong and impressive Emilia, while Italian born Alessandro Liberatore as Cassio also made a distinctive and well thought out vocal contribution.
The mounting of this performance was a fitting thank you to Gianandrea Noseda for his contribution to the development of the BBC Philharmonic; it demonstrated the appreciation of audiences over the past ten years, just as the Hallé recognised Barbirolli in 1968. Maybe one conductor’s interpretations were more lyrical, the other’s more dramatic. It matters not. Both were making music of a high order. Like me, the eminent Manchester-based musicologist and critic Michael Kennedy was present at both farewell performances. I hope, like me and the standing audience at the conclusion – and despite minor cavils – he was uplifted by this performance of Verdi’s penultimate operatic creation.
Postscript. In his pre-performance talk, and speaking as a musician, Gianandrea Noseda, while giving Verdi and his genius full praise, did not mention, understandably, Boito. Yet without the librettist Boito there would be no Otello by Verdi. It was not merely his masterly reduction of the Shakespeare play by six-sevenths without losing its essence or the quality of his verses, nor the inclusion of Iago’s Credo, (which has no part in the play but is wholly Boito) that was crucial. More importantly, it was the actual writing of the opera itself. Verdi had talked of hanging up his compositional pen after the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859. He entered politics as a member of Italy’s first National Parliament in 1861 withdrawing after three years and the death of Cavour, the unified country’s first Prime Minister, who had beseeched him to stand as the foremost representative of artistic Italy. Verdi did undertake further commissions if the price, location and circumstances seemed right. To Russia in 1861 for La Forza del Destino; to Paris for the grandest of all his operas, Don Carlos, in 1867; to write Aida for the opening of the new opera house in Cairo in 1871; but then nothing new. He revised works and, importantly, wrote his Requiem for Manzoni, whom he revered, in 1874. Under encouragement from his publisher he revised his Simon Boccanegra of 1857, establishing his relationship with Boito who wrote a new scene, the Council Chamber scene, to help convert a relative failure into a great success at La Scala in 1881 when the composer was seventy years old. Together with Verdi’s wife, his publisher Ricordi and Boito in particular, Verdi was gently pushed towards the secret chocolate project, that became a triumphant reality as Otello at La Scala in Verdi’s seventy-sixth year. At the conclusion of the premiere the composer took over twenty curtain calls after which a cheering crowd serenaded him for several hours and drew his carriage back to his hotel. Three days later Verdi was made an honorary citizen of Milan.
The full story of the composition of Otello, and those final operas, can be found in part four of my Verdi Conspectus in the main Musicweb-International site (see article).
Robert J Farr.