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Recordings Review: Green-Eyed Monsters of the Midway

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Riccardo Muti and the CSO record Otello.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Recordings Review: Green-Eyed Monsters of the Midway

In concert: Riccardo Muti (on podium) conducting Otello at Orchestra Hall in 2011.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg © 2011 Chicago Symphony Orchestra,

From the slip-case of the CD with an enormous, brooding profile of Riccardo Muti to the opening bars of the conductor's new (2013) recording of Verdi's Otello, it is clear that the fiery Italian conductor is working hard to put his personal stamp on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This Otello (recorded in 2011 during a run of four concert performances at Orchestra Hall) is Mr. Muti's second recording on CSO Resound, the orchestra's own label. (Unbelievably this is Mr. Muti's first Otello on CD, and the CSO's second. Under Sir Georg Solti made an ill-advised set with Luciano Pavarotti(!) in the title role in 1991.)
After the crash of chords and low guttural moan of the organ, the CSO players alternately roar and whisper,  responding with great subtlety to all of Mr. Muti's painstaking detail. As the storm rises, the brass thunders and the Chicago Symphony Chorus cries out in appropriate terror.  Mr. Muti is hard-driving but knows when to pull back the reins and apply rubato, allowing Verdi's melodies to breathe when necessary. In other words, this is thrilling, electric Verdi.
The initial adrenaline rush reaches its climax with the entrance of Anders Antonenko in the title role. He sings "Esultate!", the most demanding of Italian tenor introductions with a slight baritone coloring that pleases and also suggests Otello's status as a much-loved authority figure. That this will be a complete and unflinching portrayal of the hero brought low by whispers and insecurity is only hinted at in his opening scene and the carefully molded and lovingly phrased duet with Desdemona (Krassimira Stoyanova) that ends the act.
Midway through the first act, the fire chorus and drinking song allows Verdi shifts focus onto Iago, the villain of the piece. In that role, Carlo Guelfi infuses every word of the Brindisi with sarcasm, but is less convincing in the Act II Credo. An unattractive vibrato spreads in his voice when he pushes over the CSO forces at full blast. He is better as the person starts to work on Otello's mind in the handkerchief scene.
In Act II, the Moor's confrontation with Iago allows Mr. Antonenko to unleash the full upper range and head voice. The "Addio!" monolog has the right proportions of macho bluster and heartache--you can hear Otello's desperation as Iago's poison starts to work. At climax of the speech,  Otello starts to slip over the edge, mood-swinging between sotto voce utterance and ringing cries of pure anguish.
Mr. Muti jacks up the tension even further in the third act, building the arc of Otello's paranoia toward the crashing chords that accompany his total collapse. This is a master conductor who knows how to maximize the drama, and those little rubati return, serving to give the listener a breath before the hammer-swing of brass and percussion. In this act, Mr. Antonenko brings the vocal fireworks, with a thundering cry of  "A terra! e piangi!" supported by magisterial chords from the CSO brass. With the offstage choruses singing Otello's praises, Mr. Guelfi's snarled "Ecco e' leone!" is the perfect exclamation point.
The last act of Otello is its most intimate, and most disturbing as the poison seeds planted by Iago bear fruit. Ms. Stoyanova sings the Willow Song plainly and plaintively, with a mourning English horn and strings the only accompaniment. The simplicity here is what works for the listener, in one of Verdi's most intimate arias for the female voice, and Mr. Muti proves a sensitive and restrained accompanist. The Ave Maria is even more impressive, rising over the stave with pain etched into every syllable. Here, Ms. Stoyanova's performance attains a kind of spiritual grace as Mr. Muti evokes the Verdi who wrote the Libera Me of the Requiem
At Otello's entry into the chamber, Mr. Muti produces extraordinary chord playing from the orchestra: hushed and muted. There is a sad finality about this last scene, with an extraordinary intensity crackling from the speakers as the final murder and suicide play out. The principals are terrific here, but some praise also goes to the engineering team: the CDs create a three-dimensional and convincing "theater of the mind" for the listener at home.
Although Mr. Muti presents Otello as a three-character drama, this recording has a solid supporting cast in its minor roles. Eric Owens, a singer born too late for the golden age of recordings, is an impressive, resonant Lodovico. Tenor Juan Francisco Gatell is a bland Cassio, but plays the dupe well enough. Better: Michael Spyres as Rodrigo, Desdemona's would-be lover and Cassio's dupe. Finally Barbara Di Castri is a strong, determined Emilia who turns on Iago in the end. As various Cypriots and Venetian ambassadors, the Chicago Symphony Chorus is in  excellent form.

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