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Not for the Purists
on 15 June 2008
This film of Verdi's Otello has an awful lot going for it. Ably led by the masterful conducting of Lorin Maazel, the performance enshrines marvellous portrayals of Otello and Desdemona by Domingo and Ricciarelli who deliver performances which both vocally and on the screen often touch greatness. With the typically sumptuous sets of Zeffirelli, the film is often quite memorable (for example, at the unforgettable close of the first act).
Yet, as previous reviewers have pointed out, it is indeed a pity that the director chose to cut the Willow Song. That said, with a running time of 1hr 58Mins, Zeffirelli wields the axe on Verdi's score with disconcerting ease, with the consequence that the poetic beauty of Boito's libretto and the dramatic sweep of Verdi's music are all but destroyed. A snippet here, a few pages there, barely a scene passes without Zeffirelli's meddling; and it's not for dramatic continuity either, as ridiculously, the director insists upon resurrection the two ballet sequences into the action midway throught the first act and after the arrival of Venetian ambassador in Act III. The music, written for the Parisian premiere, where of course they had to have a ballet, is rarely performed today, mainly because it holds up the dramatic sweep of the action - as it does here.
Consequently, this is not a film for someone who loves Verdi's opera. As an introduction to Otello, Verdi or even the genre of opera itself, I cannot think of anything more seductive or appropriate: maybe this was the audience that Zeffirelli was targetting. However, if you are remotely familiar with Otello, I suspect that you will be disappointed with this film, more disconcerted by the director's habitual butchering of the score than seduced by the undeniably beautiful film sequences. No, if you insist upon a film of Otello, I would point the reader in the direction of Herbert von Karajan's early 1970's effort, undeniably flawed and with minor cuts of its own, but with even finer performances by Mirella Freni as Desdemona and Jon Vickers as Otello than here and accompanied by the incomparably grand Berlin PO, it is an altogether more faithful rendering of this wonderful opera and the more moving for that. However, if it is Domingo that you want, then the televised transmissions with Levine from The Met, Muti from La Scala and, to a slightly lesser extent, Solti at Covent Garden, are all superior to what's on offer here.
Overall, I'm glad to have seen this film, but I love Verdi's Otello too much to ever want to see Zeffirelli's Otello ever again.