Verdi: Otello

Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa, Sergei Leiferkus, ROH/Georg Solti (Opus Arte R3102D)

30 May 2008 4 stars

OtelloSeeing the video version of this performance of Verdi's Otello from the Royal Opera House when I was a mere ten years old was enough to convert me to Italian opera for life.

Everything seemed to come together for this excellent rendition of the composer's late Shakespearean masterpiece at Covent Garden in 1992: Plácido Domingo, arguably the title role's finest interpreter during the final quarter of last century; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at her radiant best as Desdemona; Sir Georg Solti at his most insightful in the pit; and one of Elijah Moshinsky's most atmospheric productions.

Revisiting the performance on Opus Arte's new DVD – the company is re-releasing many of the Royal Opera's old broadcasts at mid-price now that it has been taken over by the ROH – I'm perhaps just a touch disappointed. One reason is that the quality of both the sound and picture is well below what we've come to expect from this DVD company in particular. The 2.0 audio format boxes in the sound, not conveying the vitality of orchestral timbre I had remembered, and the picture is extremely grainy. This means that although Solti's lively conducting still comes across well, it's not as gripping during the big choruses – such as the opening of Act I and the third-act concertato – as I had remembered. It also means that the finer details of Timothy O'Brien's set designs are slightly obscured. In close-up, I don't find a problem with the picture, and the quieter moments of the score are similarly well conveyed – the fourth act comes across best on both fronts – but elsewhere there's a lack of focus.

That's a shame, because Domingo has surely never sounded finer in the part. I far prefer this to his later La Scala video of the piece: he's on top of things vocally, he cuts a dashing figure on the stage, he has undeniable presence and his chemistry with Te Kanawa is magical. Their love duet together is a reminder of the ease they normally shared together on stage. The third-act monologue is deeply moving, a perfect showcase for Domingo's talents at vocal acting, whilst he conveys the character's resignation and heavy heart during the death scene.

Dame Kiri tends to get slightly vocally overwhelmed in the second and third acts (contemporary reviews suggested she was difficult to hear at times), but the Willow Song and Ave Maria are close to the miraculous in their beauty and perfection. To be able to sing this difficult stretch of music with such polish and poise is no mean feat, yet she makes the number into the calm before the storm that it's supposed to be.

I know that not everyone cares for Sergei Leiferkus' assumption of the role of Iago, but I've always been taken by the sardonic Russian sound he creates. I much prefer this to a more lyrical version of the character; one might argue that Iago ought to have the outward appearance of goodness and honesty, but I find that Leiferkus conveys this through his physical acting whilst hinting at the danger of his character through the voice.

Most of the rest of the cast is very good, though you might find more outstanding vocal interpretations of the smaller roles on studio recordings – for instance, Robin Leggate portrays the character of Cassio convincingly as an actor but I prefer Ramon Vargas' singing of the role on the Deutsche Grammophon recording with Domingo, conducted by Chung.

OtelloMoshinsky's direction, while not controversial, serves the drama well. When he returned for the 2005 revival with Renee Fleming and Ben Heppner, certain details were improved – Desdemona was smothered (as in Shakespeare) rather than strangled, and the insult/slap in the third act seemed more violent, as I recall – but Moshinsky clearly worked hard even in this 1992 incarnation to delineate the characters' psyches in as much detail as possible.

In all, although the presentation (with no extras and scant liner notes) is not up to Opus Arte's usual standard, this remains a very rewarding account of a difficult opera to perform.

By Dominic McHugh

Reviews of other recent new releases include:

Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko's new recording of La boheme on Deutsche Grammophon
Rolando Villazon's new recital disc - Cielo e mar on Deutsche Grammophon