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The new recording of Otello is timely in ways that could not have been imagined when planned; not just because a major studio recording is pretty much a rara avis these days, but because the release inadvertently coincides with the Black Lives Matter movement that is sweeping the world. And Verdi’s Otello, and indeed Shakespeare’s Othello, has for many years been the focus of intense debate over casting. On the straight stage it would now be generally unthinkable to see the role played by an actor who was not of colour. The opera poses its own problems – it’s not just about looking the part, and, in a recording it is perhaps irrelevant, but onstage do we now expect to see a black Otello? And if yes, who? It is viewed as a killer to sing and requires incredibly specific voice and pacing to survive. Of top- tier tenors, I can only think of the American Russell Thomas who has already performed the role in Toronto, Berlin and Washington.

If you think I am overstepping the mark, consider that opera is precisely an art form that can be used for such debate. Otello obviously has to have some quality that sets him apart from the mainstream of his milieu, and traditionally it has been his race and the colour of his skin. Blackface is obviously wrong, though remarkably it took the Met until 2015 to realise it. And someone like Thomas shouldn’t be treated as an unwitting emblem for the issue; it smacks of tokenism. Now, over to you, directors, to see how you can convey a sense of otherness that chimes with today’s world. Unless, of course, things change and more BAME male singers get the opportunity and infrastructure to flourish and emerge. Now there’s a thought.

The Otello on this recording is Jonas Kaufmann, who has performed the role onstage in London and Munich; I caught the latter, and in that production Otello was set apart by his fragile mental state, an accident waiting to happen. Some of that interpretation comes across in this recording. Kaufmann is never going to be stentorian in the way that Vickers or Del Monaco attacked the role, so he uses his softer-grained tenor to explore the man’s more vulnerable aspects. He still sounds in charge – a leader worth following and obeying – but we soon hear the private man, tender and at times uncertain of himself. His voice is in great form, with a confident and precise Esultate to announce his arrival, complete with lightly touched grace note on the ‘B’, through to the anguish of his death, which he moulds with sensitivity and relative understatement. He conveys intense grief rather than theatrics.

His Desdemona is Francesca Lombardi, a soprano with great sweetness of tone and a sure legato. She makes Desdemona into an angel, which is one view of the role – or perhaps it is not a view at all, just a lack of interpretation. Renée Fleming, herself no slouch in the part, wrote that when she first studied it she ‘couldn’t help thinking that Desdemona had been the victim of a childhood lobotomy’, and it took her a while to divine the untrammelled innocence of the role. Lombardi provides the beauty of youth – and nothing else. Desdemona must have had some pluck: after all she has eloped with a man of a different race, and she is pretty persistent in her unfortunate championing of Cassio. Here, I am not hearing a flesh-and-blood young woman but lots of lovely sounds.

Carlos Álvarez is Iago, and he certainly gives a vivid performance. His baritone is powerful and secure from top to bottom – he doesn’t have to yelp the high ‘A’s in his drinking song but voices them confidently. And he doesn’t overplay the baddie – he sounds quite fun to be around, a bit of a Jack the Lad, always up for a laugh as he sticks the knife in your back.

Pappano’s conducting is hugely exciting and he whips up a great opening storm, the chorus and orchestra responding magnificently: both are excellent throughout. The supporting cast is good but nobody particularly grabs. When the performance really catches fire is, surprisingly, in its first moment of repose, Otello and Desdemona’s duet at the end of Act I. The opening cellos merge seamlessly into Kaufmann’s voice, the erotic tension is high – quite a remarkable moment despite Lombardi’s somewhat faceless presence. The scene is set for Iago to get to work. To sum up, a generally excellent performance in great sound, showcasing not just teamwork but highly personal performances from tenor, baritone and conductor.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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