Muti Lights ‘Otello’ on Fire in Salzburg

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The New York Sun

SALZBURG, Austria — Back when he was starting with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 25 years ago, Riccardo Muti was the target of a particular criticism: Everything he conducted sounded like Verdi. Whether that was true or not, this is clear: The man can well and truly conduct Verdi, as he proved in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall on Sunday afternoon when he presided over “Otello.”

Mr. Muti was on fire, and so was the Vienna Philharmonic, and so was Verdi’s score. The opera began with a fantastic, awesome storm: turbulent, of course, but clean — the Vienna players don’t go in for muddle. As the opera continued, the intensity never let up. This is not to say that there was hyperactivity — intensity is a very different, and much more desirable, thing.

Mr. Muti was simpatico with every page of the score, never for a second uncomfortable with it, never ungrasping of it. The music and the story had all their elements: brashness, tenderness, iniquity, sass, terror. You could quarrel with some of Mr. Muti’s decisions — for example, I think that the great tenor-baritone duet “Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!” was too fast, needing more of a swagger. But Mr. Muti was never less than reasonable.

Seldom has this opera sounded so orchestral. Frankly, it sounded like a dramatic symphony by Verdi. At intermission, a veteran music hand remarked that he had never heard an orchestra so loud in an opera house — and, indeed, Mr. Muti and the orchestra often covered the singers. Nonetheless, the orchestral presence — or dominance — was thrilling.

Note, too, that the Vienna Philharmonic was baldly human, all through. Sometimes they can be merely elegant, and plush, and civilized — on this occasion, they were, again, baldly human (while not forgetting their musical and tonal values).

The Otello, Latvia’s Aleksandrs Antonenko, was underpowered. His opening cry — “Esultate!” — was the softest, the meekest, I have ever heard. Same with several other notes and passages. He is a good singer, who owns a beautiful, somewhat luxurious voice. But this seems not to be his role, at least for now.

His Desdemona was Marina Poplavskaya, the Russian soprano whom New York audiences enjoyed in “War and Peace” last season — she made her Metropolitan Opera debut. Ms. Poplavskaya has a lyric voice with power. And that is an enviable kind of voice to have. Her voice is darkish, too, meaning that hers was a rather Russian Desdemona. But it was no worse for that.

Have you ever heard Olga Borodina’s Carmen, when she is really on? La Carmencita is Russian, but unforgettably wonderful.

Ms. Poplavskaya was touching as Desdemona, and you might say that this is an easy role in which to be touching — you’d be right. Even so, some are more affecting than others.

The Iago was a Spaniard, Carlos Álvarez, who evinced plenty of virility. Occasionally, his singing could have been clearer and slyer — but he was unquestionably a pro. And a young American tenor with a very bright future was in the house: That was Stephen Costello, who portrayed Cassio. What a beautiful, beautiful sound he makes — and he knows what to do with it.

Given Matthew Polenzani, Michael Schade, and Mr. Costello, Salzburg is swimming in beautiful lyric-tenor voices this year.

Speaking of beautiful voices, the Vienna State Opera Chorus performed well, and not just beautifully — they were nimble, as Verdi often requires.

And the production is a commendable one. It’s the work of Stephen Langridge, an English director who is the son of the tenor Philip Langridge. His “Otello” is that rara avis: an intelligent modern production. There is ground between the “traditional” and Euro-trash, and Mr. Langridge has found it. Apparently, he has the strange idea that a director should serve the opera in question, rather than ego or whim. Put another way, he is a director, rather than a usurper or destroyer.

In “Otello,” he makes use of video, but only sparing use, and it is effective. He also makes uncommonly good use of the curtain — or several curtains. At one point, he has Iago stand in front, talking directly to the audience. And this production is filled with subtle touches, such as a particular look that Emilia gives Iago, when she suspects that he’s up to no good.

The most you can say for Sunday’s performance was that it had all the terrible power of “Otello.” The singing and the stage direction were good, yes. But highest honors go to Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic — also to Verdi. And to that Englishman, who wrote the play from which the opera sprang.

The New York Sun

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