Mario del Monaco, tenor (Otello); Delia Rigal, soprano (Desdemona); Carlos Guichandut, baritone (Iago); Eugenio Valori, tenor (Cassio); Pindaro Hounau, bass (Montano); Emma Brizzio, mezzo-soprano (Emilia); Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Colón di Buenos Aires, Antonio Votto, cond.
MYTO 2 CD 004051 (2 CDs) (M) (ADD) TT: 2:12:55
For all of his considerable achievements in a wide variety of spinto and dramatic tenor repertoire, Mario del Monaco will forever be most remembered for his portrayal of Otello. Del Monaco first sang Verdi's tragic Moor of Venice at the Teatro Colón in July of 1950. During the course of his storied career, Del Monaco performed Otello an amazing 427 times. When del Monaco died in October of 1982 at the age of 67, he was buried dressed in his Otello costume.
In many ways del Monaco was ideally suited to this most demanding of all Italian tenor roles. From its baritonal lower register to a thrilling top, his plangent voice radiated extraordinary concentration, security, and power. A tenor who once sang Cassio to del Monaco's Otello reported that the force of the latter's voice was overwhelming, actually causing him physical pain! Del Monaco's precise diction was also a significant asset in Otello's many declamatory moments. In addition to his vocal gifts, del Monaco was an extremely handsome man, who, while of only moderate height, was a commanding presence on stage. To all of these qualities we may add del Monaco's untiring work ethic, manifested in part by his constant quest to refine and perfect his interpretations, particularly of Otello.
All of these aspects of del Monaco's craft are well documented in two recent issues on the historical MYTO label, both featuring performances of Otello. The first, recorded in performance at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires July 21, 1950, constitutes Mario del Monaco's debut in the role. For that reason alone it is probably self-recommending to del Monaco aficionados. Others, however, will probably find this set of more limited appeal. The greatest obstacle to enjoying the performance is the primitive quality of the recording. The dynamic range of the transcription discs is quite limited. There is occasional variability of pitch. Surface noise is present throughout, sometimes, as in the opera's final act, virtually obliterating the music. The first bar of Act IV is missingI assume that it was not preserved on the original transcription discs. Through all of the sonic haze, one can still hear a performance of great power and excitement, if not much subtlety. It is clear from the moment of del Monaco's entrancethe great :Esultate!:the Florentine tenor is in glorious voice. It also soon becomes clear that del Monaco is intent upon playing to the gallery by repeatedly straying from Verdi's prescribed rhythms and pitches, as well as the expressive and dynamic markings.
Occasionally, as in the Act I love duet, del Monaco offers some attempt at dynamic shading. But for the most part his approach in this Buenos Aires Otello is unremittingly forceful. That the performance is still a qualified success is testament to his amazing vocal gifts and unflagging dramatic intensity. In due course, however, this great tenor would demonstrate that he was capable of employing these strengths in the context of a more subtle approach resulting in performances of even greater dramatic impact.
The other principals in this Buenos Aires Otello seem to adopt del Monaco's "all-out" approach. Baritone Carlos Guichandut brings a handsome and vibrant high baritone to the role of Iago. However all too often he equates deviations from the score's pitches and rhythms as dramatic insight. It is an effect that may work once or twice, but one that becomes quite tiresome upon constant repetition.
As Desdemona, soprano Delia Rigal begins tentatively, but becomes more vocally secure as the Act I love duet progresses. In general Rigal is at her best in the more dramatic moments, such as the blazing rendition of the Act III confrontation with Otello, less effective in such delicate episodes as the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria," where her lack of secure pianissimo high notes becomes a distinct liability. Antonio Votto leads a generally propulsive account that certainly has its moments. Nevertheless, he must bear considerable responsibility for a lack of respect directed toward Verdi's score, further evidenced by a sizeable cut in the Act III finale. I am sure that the sheer visceral excitement of del Monaco's performance and its importance as a milestone in his great career will lead me to return to this recording from time to time. Nevertheless the poor sound quality and questionable musical values make it more of a curiosity than a valid presentation of one of Verdi's greatest scores.
Four years later, del Monaco performed Otello in a Turin radio broadcast, under the direction of the legendary Maestro Tullio Serafin. Here, he is in every bit as fine and powerful vocal estate as he was in Buenos Aires. But now, the vocal splendor is aligned with a far greater allegiance to Verdi's score. No doubt, this is the result of several factors. Four years of experience with the role (including the first of two commercial recordings) certainly provided the opportunity for study and refinement. The presence of the venerable Serafinfar more energetic and incisive than in his 1960 RCA studio recording with Jon Vickers in the title role must have provided a sense of occasion and discipline. Instead of the rather monochromatic Guichandut, del Monaco here confronts the superb Iago of Renato Capecchin superb voice and relishing every syllable of the Boito/Shakespeare text. Soprano Onelia Fineschi's lovely Desdemona is also an improvement over Rigal's uneven account.
Time and again in this Turin performance, we find del Monaco approaching the score with far greater appreciation for the music's architecture and flow. A good example may be found in Otello'’s great third-act narrative, "Dio! mi potevi scagliar." In the Buenos Aires performance, del Monaco ignores the composer's repeated directives that Otello sing quite softly (the monologue begins with a "pppp" marking). Here, the tenor portrays Otello's inner grief over Desdemona's supposed adultery with stentorian tones, frequently straying from Verdi's specified pitches, opting instead for sprechstimme, replete with sobs at almost every turn. As a result, this performance, as thrilling as it is, gives little sense of Verdi's inexorable musical and emotional crescendo. Under Serafin's baton, del Monaco is far more attentive to the score, adopting a comparatively restrained and measured approach. As a result the monologue's concluding B-flat, while magnificently sung in both performances, rings with much greater dramatic force in the 1954 recording. This is but one example of many where the tenor's increased artistry gives his Otello a far more noble and affecting character.
The sound on this 1954 recording is much better than the 1950 Buenos Aires performance. Still, it is rather variable, ranging from quite clear to occasionally cloudy, certainly not the equal of studio recordings of the period. In this performance Serafin includes the Act III ballet music Verdi composed for a later Paris staging of Otello. I should also note that this release is billed by MYTO as a "Limited Edition" (my copy is listed as "416/700"). Purchasers may decide whether or not this adds a greater degree of urgency to consideration of purchase. I am delighted to own this set, as it documents Mario del Monaco at something approaching his vocal and artistic peak. Still, if I were limited to a single del Monaco in-performance recording of Otello, I would opt for yet another MYTO release (2 MCD 944.107), this time of a March 8, 1958 Metropolitan Opera broadcast. In much finer sound than either the Buenos Aires or Turin performances, this Otello features del Monaco again in wonderful voice and even more dramatically insightful. It is also hard to imagine more ideal colleagues than the radiant Desdemona of Victoria de los Angeles and the brilliantly characterized Iago of Leonard Warren. Fausto Cleva elicits a thrilling performance from all concerned.
Also superb is a January 1954 La Scala performance, again with del Monaco and Warren, both in tremendous form. The Desdemona is Renata Tebaldi, here caught in her absolute prime both vocally and dramatically. The unusually potent Cassio of Giuseppe Zampieri is also a welcome asset, as is the conducting of Antonio Votto. Here the conductor redeems his Buenos Aires effort with a performance that offers an excellent balance of fire and discipline.
Indeed, this del Monaco Otello is in many ways the equal of the 1958 Met broadcast. What keeps it from attaining pride of place is the recorded soundmore limited in dynamic and frequency range than the Met performance. Still the sound quality is more than acceptable and the price$20 plus shipping and handling is certainly reasonable. The La Scala Otello is available from Premiere Opera Ltd. (www.premiereopera.com), a concern that specializes in live opera recordings. Packaging is spare (no booklet, just a computer print-out with a partial cast list and CD track listing), but the performance more than compensates.
Two years after appearing as Iago in the Buenos Aires Otello, baritone Carlos Guichandut retrained as a tenor. That same year, he made his tenor debut in Bari, as Siegmund in Wagner's Die Walküre. Guichandut made a specialty of heroic tenor parts, including Verdi's Otello, which he recorded in Turin for the Cetra label in 1955. That studio recording has now been reissued, at budget price, on the Warner Fonit label.
Guichandut offers some individual and compelling dramatic interpretive touches, such as the shudder that overtakes Otello's voice when the Moor believes Cassio is describing "how, where and when" he will have an affair with Desdemona. The baritone-turned-tenor certainly possesses the power and intensity to do justice to Otello's many dramatic moments. However, typical of some baritones who make the switch to heroic tenor, Guichandut seems unable to modulate his voice for softer dynamics, particularly in the upper register. As a result, many of the score's more lyrical and introverted moments pass with little effect. In short, Guichandut's is a credible assumption of this fiendish role, but certainly one that is not on the level of the finest Otellos.
By contrast, Giuseppe Taddei, a great singing actor, is a superb Iago. Indeed, I would place his Iago alongside Apollo Granforte (EMI, 1932), Tito Gobbi (RCA, 1960) and Lawrence Tibbett (documented in several Met broadcasts and a series of 1939 RCA studio excerpts) as the finest Iagos on record. Taddei, with his rich baritone, glorious diction, and constant attention to detail, masterfully portrays Iago's duplicity, lending dramatic credibility to Otello's ruin. Cesy Broggini brings an attractive lyric soprano to the role of Desdemona. Franco Capuana leads an energetic, propulsive account of the score that (Taddei apart) is not particularly subtle. At budget price and in quite fine mono sound, this set is an attractive proposition. If for no other reason, I would want to own it for Taddei's magnificent Iago.
K.M. (June 2001)