Karajan conducts Verdi’s “Otello”

Karajan conducts Verdi’s “Otello”

Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan (Director), Jon Vickers (Tenor (Otello)), Mirella Freni (Sopran (Desdemona)), Peter Glossop (Bariton (Jago)), Aldo Bottion (Tenor (Cassio)), Stefania Malagù (Mezzo-Soprano (Emilia)), Michel Sénéchal (Tenor (Rodrigo)), Mario Macchi (Bass (Montano)), José van Dam (Bass (Lodovico)), Walter Hagen-Groll (Chorus Master), Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin

139 min.

Herbert von Karajan’s Salzburg Festival production of Verdi’s Otello played for 14 performances in the years 1970-72. In Robert Dornhelm’s film Karajan or Beauty as I see it conductor Mariss Jansons recalls: “It was unbelievable. I couldn’t sleep. I spent the whole night walking round Salzburg. It was as if I had been hypnotised.” This historically important 1973 film of the production, co-directed by actor and television director Roger Benamou, preserves for us one of the greatest of all twentieth-century Otello casts and productions.

For Karajan there was no greater interpreter of the role of Otello than the Canadian-born tenor Jon Vickers whose psychotically disturbed study of the Moor married modern psychological insights with the trumpet-like tones of legendary Otellos from an earlier age. The intensity of his playing of the scenes with Desdemona – lyric soprano Mirella Freni, another singer much revered by Karajan – in the opera’s final two acts borders at times on the unbearable.

The English baritone Peter Glossop, a true Verdi baritone in a period which was rich in such singers, first worked with Karajan in Milan in 1968 playing Tonio to Vickers’s Canio in Karajan’s viscerally exciting film of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Karajan is said to have been fascinated by Glossop’s piercing eyes and keen dramatic intelligence. An Iago schooled in the English tradition, Glossop is less the suave Italian Machiavel, more the blunt embittered soldier of Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

Set and costume designs were by the long-serving Karajan team of Günther Schneider-Siemssen and Georges Wakhevitch. The sound recording was made in the Berlin Philharmonie in April 1973 with the Berliner Philharmoniker, an orchestra which had become well-versed in the Italian style during the Karajan years. The original cinema release was beset by technical problems with sound and vision, problems which digital remastering has happily overcome.