Verdi: Otello (german) / Windgassen, Jurinac (1965
This 1965 television film, a Vienna-Stuttgart collaboration, is in most ways a fine performance, with a clean print and only the occasional drop in sound or clarity. But Arthaus Musik should be more up-front on the packaging about the fact that it is in German translation—it’s suggested in the title but confirmed only in tiny symbols on the back cover. Otto Schenk’s production generally makes clever use of the studio settings and a very mobile camera; occasionally he urges Norman Mittelmann’s Iago—working in the bluff “regular guy” mode of Philip Seymour Hoffman—into over-the-top, melodramatic gestures and parlando. But there are insightful moments, too, such as the way the camera lingers on each principal’s face in turn as the great concertato of Act III is launched. The musical performance under longtime Vienna staple Argeo Quadri—live, not lip-synched—is very sound, if not a blazing statement à la Toscanini or Carlos Kleiber. The chief virtue of the film lies in its preservation of two major twentieth-century singers who had very limited New York (and indeed American) careers. Wolfgang Windgassen gave the Met a scant seven performances of his Ring roles (Siegmund and Siegfried) in 1957 but dominated Wagner performance elsewhere for two decades. His tenor is almost anti-Italianate in timbre, but it is intensely expressive and (since he wisely retained Tamino in his active repertory while essaying Tristan) still ductile. Dynamics are expertly handled to encompass both delicacy and violent outbursts. Very dignified but a menace when angered, Windgassen really seems to embody the character, with no telegraphed heroics or self-conscious posing. Actions and phrases have consistent motivation. He’s magnificent in Otello’s death scene. His performance belies arrogant divas claiming that operatic acting started with Callas—and then revived only with them. Sena Jurinac, who was never successfully lured to the Met, graced San Francisco Opera sporadically between 1959 and 1980; Desdemona furnished her 1963 Chicago debut role. Not ideal for her (the registration of her dark-hued soprano doesn’t always match Verdi’s purposes), the role still showcases her musical acumen and sympathetic persona, not to mention her often lovely tone in the “Ave Maria” and many cantilena moments. Mittelmann’s Iago supplies plentiful tenorish mezza voce—not all of it on pitch, alas. If not so subtle or scary as Renato Capecchi in RAI’s film, the Canadian baritone has his strong moments vocally and dramatically. In retrospect, Texan tenor William Blankenship (Cassio) might profitably have exchanged roles with Adolf Dallapozza (Rodrigo), but both are capable, as are Wiener Staastoper stalwarts Margarita Lilova (here a handsome young Emilia) and Walter Kreppel (reliable as ever as Lodovico). Norbert Balatsch’s Viennese choral forces, good in the opening scene, are a little bit disappointing in the (shortened) Act II encounter with Desdemona.