We are pleased to return to OperaPost with this entry on Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, the September 21, 2015 opening bill at the Met and, on this coming Saturday, October 17, the second of the “Met Live in HD” telecasts for 2015-16.
A word about the surprising fortunes of Verdi’s penultimate opera at the Metropolitan. (His last, also based on a Shakespeare text, was the comic Falstaff.) Early on, Verdi’s Otello struggled to endear itself to New York audiences. In its first performance, in 1891, the company’s leading tenor, Jean de Reszke, took on the title role. Although critics hailed de Reszke and the opera, the other principals and the production were considered unworthy of the work and its single performance drew the season’s lowest box office. Revived three years later with Francesco Tamagno and Victor Maurel, the Otello and Iago of the La Scala world premiere in 1887, and the very popular Emma Eames as Desdemona, Otello ticket sales fell well below the season’s average, despite dithyrambic reviews. Here is Tamagno trumpeting Otello’s mighty entrance in a 1903 recording.
In 1895, a leading critic despaired at indifference to “one of the most important works of the last ten years” and went on to complain that since New York was “not really a profoundly musical city,” there was an insufficient audience to support so somber a piece.
Oddly enough, Otello thrived in the 1901-1902 season, and then, inexplicably, between 1909 and 1914, it drew poorly for most of the 29 times the company’s star conductor, Arturo Toscanini, led the opera. Toscanini was particularly close to Otello; he had played in the cello section at the La Scala premiere supervised by Verdi himself. One act of Otello made it to the Met stage during a 1934 gala. This was Lauritz Melchior’s only chance to sing at the Met a role in which he triumphed in other houses. Here, in the Act II “Ora e per sempre addio,” is a taste of what New Yorkers were denied.
Otello would wait nearly a quarter of a century before Giovanni Martinelli, in his 25th Met season (out of a total of 32), was finally cast in the role that is recognized as the most demanding tenor part in the Italian repertoire. In this five-season run, despite excellent notices and a stellar cast, Otello failed once again to attain the seasonal box office average. The public continued to find the exacting score a hurdle it was unwilling to overcome. Lawrence Tibbett, who played “honest Iago” opposite Martinelli’s “Moor of Venice,” sings the opera’s famous “Credo” in this recording.
In 1948, Otello enjoyed the distinction of being the first opera to be telecast from the Met stage. But even this signal event fell short in increasing the work’s popularity. It was only with its revival in 1955 that the opera could be counted on to sell out the house, as it has so frequently ever since. The stentorian Mario del Monaco and the phenomenally gifted Leonard Warren were already familiar as Otello and Iago. It was the Desdemona, Renata Tebaldi in her Met debut, who made the difference. The audience immediately took Tebaldi to its heart, where she remained for nearly twenty seasons. We have chosen the Act IV “Ave Maria” from a 1954 La Scala performance to demonstrate the unique warmth of her timbre, her phenomenal breath control, her haunting pianissimo. Among the many transcriptions of live Otellos and several commercial recordings, this one captures one of Tebaldi’s most moving renditions of Desdemona’s tragic foreboding.
A striking feature of this year’s new production is the absence of blackface for the depiction of Otello, played by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. We join other critics in applauding this decision and cite here director Barlett Sher’s pertinent comment: "It really did seem very obvious given our cultural history and political history in the United States, that for me and my production team the idea of putting [Othello] in blackface was completely unthinkable. We can't give in to that cultural trope."