This is a recording of the first performance of Otello given by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden after World War II, in October, 1955. The only previous production since the war had been in 1950, when the visiting La Scala had presented the work, (with the title role also sung by Ramon Vinay.) This performance also marked the Covent Garden debut of the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik, who had just been hired as Musical Director. Kubelik leads a masterful performance, conducting with all the drive and passion that Verdi demands, compared to the slower and more stately pace of Furtwangler's performance at Bayreuth four years earlier, (also with Vinay.)
Chilean dramatic tenor Ramon Vinay, who was considered the leading Otello of the day, was to sing the title role. Vinay had been singing the role since 1947, when Toscanini cast him in the famous New York performance and broadcast. With a baritonal heft and timbre to his voice, Vinay was also making a name for himself at Bayreuth as one of the era's top heldentenors, and he lives up to his billing.
Dutch soprano Gre Brouwenstijn sings Desdemona, and gives a first-class if not world-class performance. She doesn't have a particularly Italianate voice--in fact she sang primarily in the German repertoire. She also has a very rapid vibrato that's a bit disconcerting at first, and sometimes lands on the lower half of the pitch. But she brings a vulnerability and fragility to Desdemona with a sypathetic performance that quite wins you over. And she pulls it all together for the Willow Song and Ave Maria, including a gorgeous floated piano high A flat at the end.
German baritone Otakar Kraus, who was a regular baritone on staff at Covent Garden, was not originally cast as Iago. That honor went to Tito Gobbi, but when Gobbi failed to show for rehearsals, Kubelik replaced him with Kraus at fairly short notice. Kraus does a masterful job. With a surprisingly vibrant and warm voice, he turns in a sly and insinuating performance, making it quite understandable how Otello could fall for his spurious tale.
The other roles are handled perfectly competently, and the Covent Garden orchestra and chorus perform admirably. The sound quality is very good, given this is a 1955 mono live recording.
But at the end of the evening, this was Vinay's night. A tremendous actor as well as a superb singer, he invests the Moor with a nobility that makes his destruction even more terrifying and horrible. His absolute anguish upon discovering Iago's treachery and Desdemona's innocence is so real that it's almost painful to listen to--and that's on a CD! In person, watching it on stage, it must have been just devastating. No histrionics, no over-stylization, no grand declamations or fake sobbing--just an emotionally gut-wrenching performance. With all respect to other magnificent interpreters of the role such as Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers, James McCracken, and Placido Domingo, now I understand why he was considered the most powerful Otello of the second half of the 20th century.
Like another great singer of that era, Maria Callas, Vinay also "sang on the capital, not on the interest," as one author wrote. Six years later the strain would show and he would loose his top notes and finish his career as a baritone, a shadow of what he had been. But this evening, at the age of 44, his voice is still in its prime and his artistry incredible. (By the way, Vinay also sings an incredible Tristan und Isolde with Astrid Varnay, recorded in 1953 at Bayreuth and released on the Monogram label.)
This recording is one of the Royal Opera House Heritage series, and is very nicely packaged with a slipcover case over the plastic case and a good accompanying booklet, with a libretto and an excellent article about the performance and some great pictures. And at the price of $21, including shipping and handling, it's ridiculously inexpensive.
This is not just an "historical" recording, of interest only to collectors or rabid opera fans. This is a fantastic recording of one of the greatest interpreters ever to sing the role of Otello, at the peak of his career. Put this in your shopping cart RIGHT NOW! I would give it "6 stars" if I could.