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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 26, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 26
Verdi's Otello as cheap melodrama
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Verdi's Otello as cheap melodrama

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

VERDI'S OTELLO
DEUTSCHE OPER BERLIN
DVD


Oh boy! A chance to see one of my favorite sopranos, in one of my favorite operas, in her signature role! This DVD, taken from a telecast in Germany in 1962, presents Renata Tebaldi, age 40, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. (40 years of age is the time when most big-voiced sopranos are just entering their prime vocally. They often maintain that prime well into their fifties.) I grew up on the 1954 recording with resplendent Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco. My hopes were high for this 1962 DVD.

The brilliant opening scene was promising. Huge chorus, captured in exceptionally good mono sound, and a very decent 'Esultate!' from tenor Hans Beirer as Otello. The chorus articulated the complex music extremely well, and the conducting by Giuseppe Patané was tight and exciting. Even the movement of the chorus was well done. (The video quality is quite good black and white television picture with only slight defects.)

Then things began to fall apart. Sexy baritone William Dooley set the tone with sloppy rhythm where Verdi calls for sharp articulation, brilliantly revealing therein Iago's evil nature. In his drinking song, Dooley didn't just miss the top notes; he didn't even try, leaving them out entirely! He was sometimes out of step with the conductor. And his acting was of an on-and-off nature: one moment he seemed to try for some characterization in a gesture approximately right, then suddenly switch off into bland nothingness. His tone hardly ever varied. (For a great Iago, go to Tito Gobbi on the fabulous RCA CD's conducted by Tullio Serafin, or even the surprisingly excellent Falk Struckmann, a Wagnerian, on the recent Met blu-ray disc, a complete review of which will be coming in a few weeks.)

Unfortunately, Dooley's on-and-off attempt at acting characterized nearly everyone in the cast. Some gestures were so awful, so stagey, so phony as to be downright comical. To be sure, most operatic acting in the mid-twentieth century did not strive for the realistic approach we see today. And opera on TV and film was very new when this recording was made. So, allowances can be made. This is indeed an interesting look at an operatic age of old. But this was also the age of Callas, Vickers and Gobbi, all great singing actors. And singers like Leonard Warren and Zinka Milanov 'acted' through the varied tones and word-pointing of their voices, even if they could hardly be called good actors visually. None of the singers on this Otello DVD vary their tone for dramatic effect, with rare exception.

Tenor Hans Beirer, after his opening 'Esultate!' (which requires only that the tenor sing the notes with power), is the worst actor of the bunch. He generally has all the notes, and with sufficient power, but is pathetic to watch most of the time. And his musicianship is poor, often 'barking' his words, especially at the end of Act II.

Renata Tebaldi is a good musician, and often gives us reminders of her former self, especially when singing softly. (She is also quite beautiful.) But the exquisite soft high notes of the past are no longer at her command; so she sings most of them loud. The voice is still warm and rich, but she often has to forget all about acting and visibly concentrate solely on generating her sound. Her acting is old-school, broad gestures, but even this gets interrupted by her need to focus only on getting her voice to work. These interruptions spoil whatever effect she is after. Why she, at age 40, is no longer in her prime vocally is anybody's guess. My theory is that she continued to attempt too big a sound, with too much warmth all the way to the top notes, and that this approach required the energy that only youth could sustain. In short, improper technique.

The sets are minimal and cheap.

The overall effect of the faults in the cast and direction, plus the frequent lack of coordination between pit and stage, is to destroy the power of this, one of the truly great operas. Only Tebaldi conveys any respect for the music. Someone unfamiliar with better performances would never guess what a genius Verdi was at characterization through singing and orchestral effect. Even the ancient Toscanini recording, as well as the Tullio Serafin CD's, lay that genius out naked before the listener, who must be awestruck that a human could conjure such magic. I found this DVD depressing and difficult to watch.

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