Once, responding to a critic who questioned his understanding of Shakespeare, Verdi insisted that he might be accused of many things but never that. "Why, I keep Shakespeare by my bed at night," he pointed out, plainly hurt.
Which would seem to affirm his love of the plays, even if it does not account for such things as the witches' chorus in "Macbeth" (which at times seems to come straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan) or the decision to make Othello, in the opera that bears his name, a tenor. (In acting the role even Olivier was at pains to lower his voice an octave, on the assumption - correct, I think - that everything about the character must be black.)Just the same "Otello" is a masterpiece, together with "Falstaff" perhaps the most remarkable distillation we have of Verdi at his peak, his imagination and vitality undimmed by age or, more importantly, the prospect of having to measure up to his own "Aida" of 16 years before. For the last may be grander, in the conventional operatic sense, but even it yields in dramatic intensity to "Otello," whose sweeping action and tragic denouement carry one along on an unbroken current, yet one in which (thanks in part to Boito's masterly compression of the text) there is still room for careful delineation of the characters.
Clearly that has not been enough for Franco Zeffirelli, whose 1986 film of the opera not only compressed both the text and the music still further (including, incredibly, the elimination of the Willow Song) but moved part of the Act 3 ballet music to Act 1, the effect of which was to disrupt the musical-cum-dramatic flow cited above. Ditto his almost indiscriminate use of flashbacks (one of them, Cassio's dream, a fiction of Jago's creation) and sound effects that often intrude on what we should be hearing - i.e., the music.
Nonetheless it remains a compelling cinematic experience, especially on the above-listed Image laser-video issue, sharper than the current Showtime cable transmission and more complete than the print I saw when the film itself played the Centre, which for some reason omitted the Act 2 finale. (It may also be had, on VHS or Beta, on Kultur for $39.95.)
As usual with Zeffirelli, both sets and characters are sumptuously dressed, yet in almost palpably realistic fashion. One can practically smell the smoke of the torches, and the dirt and moisture as the characters ply their way along ancient stone passageways. And although the result may be a bit obvious, one remembers the distorting effect of the lenses in Otello's chart room as Jago plants the seeds of jealousy. Likewise the latter's literally staring into a bottomless pit as he proclaims his atheistic Credo.
As Otello, tenor Placido Domingo may have no peer in the world today, now that Jon Vickers is apparently no longer singing the role. Only a bit less brilliant than on his RCA recording, he makes for a noble, commanding Moor, from his ringing "Esultate" to his parting kiss for the murdered Desdemona. And, as with his Don Jose, the sense of his not being overly bright serves him well - how else to explain his being so easily gulled into believing his wife unfaithful?
In Zeffirelli's version, moreover, unlike Shakespeare or Boito, he is allowed to kill Jago, with a spear through the back, a fitting end for the treacherous villain Justino Diaz serves up onscreen, as dark of voice as he is of deed. Katia Ricciarelli's Desdemona, by contrast, is all golden innocence, even if her lower register (where the voice seems to be weighted these days) is none too smooth at times.
For his part conductor Lorin Maazel generally does his work with a will, even if he lets down a bit in the oath scene ("Si, pel ciel"), forcefully intoned by Domingo and Diaz. Jon Vickers, on the other hand, conveys even greater menace and dramatic insight on the 1974 Karajan recording, as does Karajan himself in this scene.
As it happens, that recording was also the soundtrack for a film, now available for the first time commercially on a new PolyGram CD Video. More obviously stage-derived, it lacks the cinematic verisimilitude of the Zeffirelli film but that does not mean it is any less exciting. The opening storm, for example, is a bit more so, not only because we can hear it all (not always possible above the noise on the Zeffirelli soundtrack) but because Karajan has been careful to keep his visuals in sync with the music - i.e., we see and hear the waves crash simultaneously.
It is Vickers' suavely powerful Otello that sets this production above its rivals, however, whether rising effortlessly above the fury of the orchestra or sinking dreamily into Karajan's sensuous shaping of the love duet (gorgeously shaded by both). In this he is matched by the unfettered beauty of Mirella Freni's Desdemona, secure of voice but affectingly vulnerable, especially in the Willow Song and Prayer.
If Diaz, as a bass, seems a bit heavy for Jago, then Peter Glossop, for Karajan, seems a bit light. The Brindisi, for example, not only lacks swagger but starts a bit roughly, as does the Credo. Both, however, profit from the strength of the orchestral backing.
In other words musically this would be my top choice among video "Otellos," a decision reinforced by its one-act-per-side layout. (The Image set, by contrast, breaks after the Credo and the end of Act 3.) But I would not want to be without Zeffirelli's visuals, even if they are tied to a soundtrack that, unlike Karajan's, cannot really be divorced from the film. Even so, that is the context to have it in, as they are what give it its real luster, even if the light it casts is sometimes in the wrong places.