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ClassicsOnline Home » VERDI: Otello (Vinay, Nelli, Toscanini) (1947)
Arturo Toscanini was the second cellist in the orchestra of La Scala, Milan, for the triumphant first performance of Verdi's Otello on 5th February 1887. Sixty years later he led a radio broadcast of Otello spread over two evenings that is considered by many to be the most successful of his opera recordings for NBC. Described by one of Toscanini's biographers, Joseph Horowitz, as ‘the one that comes closest to recapturing Toscanini's revolutionary impact in the pit’, this December 1947 recording is remarkable for Toscanini's dramatic grasp of Shakespeare's timeless tragedy, and his scrupulous observation of Verdi's most detailed dynamic markings.
By David Denton
Great Opera Performances
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Lyric Drama in 4 Acts
Libretto by Arrigo Boito (from Shakespeare)
Otello - Ramón Vinay
Desdemona - Herva Nelli
Iago - Giuseppe Valdengo
Cassio - Virginio Assandri
Emilia - Nan Merriman
Roderigo - Leslie Chabay
Lodovico - Nicola Moscona
Montàno - Arthur Newman
NBC Symphony Orchestra and Choruses
Announcer: Ben Grauer
The idea for a libretto based on Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, to be written by the Italian critic and composer Arrigo Boito and to be set to music by the pre-eminent Italian composer of the late nineteenth century, Giuseppe Verdi, was first suggested by Verdi's publisher Giuseppe Ricordi. Initially Verdi was extremely resistant to the idea, commenting to Boito when he brought him a sketch: 'Write the libretto. It will come in handy for yourself, for me or for someone else.' Despite continuing protestations, he received the completed libretto on 18 November 1879, read it and accepted it. But he was not to write a note of music for it for another five years.
During this period Verdi worked with Boito on the revision of his earlier opera Simon Boccanegra, demonstrating his immense practicality when he wrote to his colleague: '…you are aiming here at an unobtainable perfection. I do not aim so high and so am more optimistic than you, and by no means in despair. I admit the table is shaky, but if we adjust the legs a little I think it will stand up.' Verdi began work on Otello in March 1884, completing the outline score by October 1885. During the following year he scored it for orchestra and made some revisions: the final full score was sent to Ricordi in December 1886. The first production was quickly mounted at Milan's La Scala opera house, with the première taking place on 5 February 1887, under the baton of the leading conductor of the period, Franco Faccio. The reception given to the new work was ecstatic: Verdi had to take twenty curtain calls, with all of the audience on its feet, waving hats and handkerchiefs in its excitement. When he left the theatre, his carriage was pulled by adoring admirers and he was serenaded until five in the morning. The general mood was summed up by a contemporary cartoon in a humorous Milan journal, in which Otello was portrayed as singing: 'Un bacio, un bacio, ancora un bacio / a Verdi, al Boito e al Facio.' (Quoting Otello in the final act, 'A kiss, a kiss, and once more a kiss, to Verdi, Boito and Faccio.')
The second cellist in the orchestra of La Scala for that first performance was Arturo Toscanini. During the rehearsals Verdi had leaned over to him and asked him 'to play louder' in the passage for four cellos at the end of the first act. Seven years later, and now successfully launched on a career as a conductor, Toscanini gave Otello at Pisa in 1894, and following his appointment as conductor at La Scala in 1898, presented it once again to the Milanese audience as one of the opening productions of his second season, the other being Wagner's Siegfried. His working methods at this time are vividly described by none other than Wagner's widow, Cosima, writing to Toscanini following her son Siegfried's visit to hear him conduct Tristan und Isolde in Milan in 1901: 'My son stressed the meticulous zeal which you brought to the orchestral preparations and the excellent result obtained by this zeal, along with your ability as conductor. He also told me that the singers knew their rôles perfectly and delivered them with passion and enthusiasm.'
Toscanini's career as the finest Italian conductor of his generation continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1937 David Sarnoff, the head of the Radio Corporation of America, needed to project an image of public service for his radio station, NBC, to ward off potentially damaging Congressional investigation into its commercial nature. He thus vigorously backed Samuel Chotzinoff's idea of luring Toscanini back to New York, following his departure during the previous year as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with the promise of a new orchestra created especially for him. Toscanini accepted the proposal: his first concert with this new orchestra, the NBC Symphony Orchestra, given and broadcast on Christmas Day 1937, elicited high critical praise and significant public response. The threats to NBC from Congress receded. Thereafter New York was to be Toscanini's principal theatre of activity, and by 1947 he was being emphatically promoted by RCA through radio and gramophone recordings, and their associated advertising, as the greatest conductor alive. This process was to be further emphasized by the introduction of long-playing records in 1948 and the swift appearance of longer, generally complete, works in the record catalogue. RCA and NBC's promotion of Toscanini was further intensified with the broadcasting on the new medium of television of two of the concerts in the NBC Symphony Orchestra's 1947-48 season. It was during this season of NBC concerts that the performances of Otello heard on this recording, which were spread over two evenings though not themselves televised, took place.
The recording has been described by one of Toscanini's biographers, Joseph Horowitz, as the most successful of his opera recordings for NBC, and 'the one that comes closest to recapturing Toscanini's revolutionary impact in the pit.' The reasons for this are several: Verdi's unremitting dramatic thrust in this opera suits 'the Savanarola fury of Toscanini's late years'; the cast is the best of the seven operas that NBC broadcast; and Toscanini is unremitting not only in his observation of Verdi's most detailed dynamic markings (after all the composer had himself commented upon them to him), but in his vivid dramatic grasp of Shakespeare's timeless tragedy. To quote Horowitz once again: 'He [Toscanini] tightens the screw implacably, plotting a continuous descent toward a calamity greater than its victims.' Even more immediate is the recollection of the distinguished violinist Felix Galimir, who played in the NBC Symphony Orchestra for these performances: 'Those were some of the great performances: I think I will never hear anything like that Otello.'
Cast in the title rôle was the Chilean singer Ramón Vinay (1911-1996), who started his career as a baritone, reverted to tenor and then moved back to baritone. Born in Chillán, Chile, he was educated in France before his family moved to Mexico City. Here he studied voice with José Pierson, and made his début as Don Alfonso in Donizetti's La Favorita. After further study with René Maison, he appeared as a tenor for the first time in 1944, the year in which he also first sang Otello. He made his début with the New York City Center Opera in 1945 and at the Metropolitan Opera during the following year, once again as Otello. His singing of this rôle with Toscanini launched his international career: he went on to appear in both Italian and German repertoire in Bayreuth, Buenos Aires, London, Paris, Salzburg, and Vienna, singing under conductors such as Furtwängler and Beecham. He returned to singing baritone rôles in 1962, and last sang in public in 1974.
Singing opposite Vinay was Giuseppe Valdengo (1914-2007) as Iago. He studied violin, oboe and singing at the Turin Conservatory, and after singing subsidiary rôles, made his début as a principal in Rossini's The Barber of Seville at Parma in 1936. He first appeared at La Scala, Milan, in 1938. He sang Sharpless in Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the New York City Center Opera in 1946, the same year in which he made his début at the Metropolitan Opera, with which he was to enjoy a long and distinguished relationship. In addition to Otello, he also took the principal baritone rôles in Toscanini's broadcasts and recordings of Aida and Falstaff. He returned to Italy in 1956, and retired from the stage in 1966, after which he taught and wrote a book entitled 'I sang with Toscanini'.
Toscanini cast in the rôle of Desdemona Herva Nelli (1909-1994). Born in Florence, she attended a convent school, before her family moved when she was twelve to Pittsburgh, where she studied at the Pittsburgh Music Institute. She made her operatic début as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in 1937 with Brooklyn's Salmaggi Opera, with which she was also to appear in La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore. She sang Santuzza for the New City Center Opera in 1947, the year in which she successfully auditioned for Toscanini. Following Otello she sang in his broadcasts and recordings of Aida, Falstaff, Un Ballo in maschera and the Verdi Requiem. She subsequently pursued a busy career throughout America, and appeared at the Metropolitan Opera regularly between 1953 and 1961 in a variety of rôles for dramatic soprano. She gave her last operatic performance in 1962, and later earned a considerable reputation as a chef.
[CD 1 / Track 1] Opening announcement
[1/2] Spoken synopsis of Act 1
Act I: A seaport with a castle in Cyprus during the fifteenth century
[1/3] A storm is raging. A crowd watches anxiously as the ship of Otello, the Governor of Cyprus and a Moor, tries to reach the shelter of the harbour.
[1/4] The ship enters port safely and Otello exultantly makes his triumphant entry. He announces his most recent military victory, before entering the castle accompanied by his lieutenant, Cassio. The crowds salute Otello as their leader. Iago, Otello's ensign, tells Roderigo (who has travelled from Venice because of his love for Otello's wife Desdemona and whom Iago has promised to help to gain her) how he hates Otello for promoting Cassio over him.
[1/5] The crowds create a bonfire to celebrate.
[1/6] Cassio is persuaded to drink by Iago.
[1/7] Iago knows that Cassio cannot hold his liquor, and encourages a brawl between him and Roderigo.
[1/8] Montano, Otello's predecessor as Governor of Cyprus, enters to call Cassio to his duty as the captain of the guard, and is shocked to see him drunk. Cassio draws his sword against Montano. Iago sends Roderigo off to raise a general alarm.
[1/9] With the fighting at its height and the alarm bells tolling, Otello enters and demands to know how the quarrel has arisen. Iago disingenuously suggests that Cassio is to blame. Aroused by the noise, Desdemona enters. Otello angrily tells Cassio that he is no longer his lieutenant. The crowd disperses.
[1/10] Otello turns to Desdemona and tells her how, like the night, his love for her banishes thoughts of violence.
[1/11] The two recall the growth of their love for each other.
[1/12] Otello is carried away by the intensity of the moment and seeks a kiss from Desdemona. They embrace and slowly enter the castle.
[1/13] Spoken synopsis of Act II
Act II: A hall on the ground floor of the castle, separated from the garden by a glass-paneled door
[1/14] Cassio and Iago have been conversing and Iago assures Cassio that he will regain Otello's esteem, especially if he asks Desdemona to intercede on his behalf. He advises Cassio to approach her in the garden where she is strolling with Iago's wife, Emilia.
[1/15] As Cassio departs Iago gives vent to his 'Credo': he believes in a cruel god who has made man in his own image. Death is nothing and heaven a lie.
[1/16] He watches as Cassio converses with Desdemona.
[1/17] As Otello enters Iago appears to mutter words of concern. Pressed by Otello, Iago with apparent reluctance hints at an illicit relationship between Cassio and Desdemona. As Otello becomes distracted, Iago warns him to beware of jealousy but to watch his wife carefully.
[1/18] Desdemona reappears in the garden, surrounded by women and children who serenade her.
[1/19] After they have dispersed, Desdemona intercedes on Cassio's behalf with Otello. Otello claims to have a headache, but when Desdemona produces a handkerchief to soothe his brow, he flings it to the floor. Emilia picks it up but Iago quietly takes it from her. Given to Desdemona by Otello when they first met, it is a precious gift and one of which Iago is sure he can make use in the future. Desdemona and Emilia depart.
[1/20] As Otello gets more distracted, Iago advises him to think no more of his concerns. Otello flares up and accuses him of planting the idea of treachery in his mind.
[1/21] In a passionate outburst he foresees his memories and triumphs shattered by the idea of Desdemona's infidelity. He demands proof of this from Iago.
[1/22] Iago tells him of how one night, sleeping beside Cassio, he had heard him talk of Desdemona as though they were lovers. But this was only a dream. He can produce firm evidence: does not Otello remember an embroidered handkerchief which he gave to Desdemona? Otello can remember it – it was his first pledge of love to her. Iago tells Otello that he has recently seen this handkerchief in Cassio's hand.
[1/23] Otello is roused to jealous fury and swears vengeance. Iago kneels beside him and vows to assist him.
[2/1] Opening announcement
[2/2] Spoken synopsis of Act III
Act III: The great hall of the castle
[2/3] There is an orchestral introduction.
[2/4] A Herald announces that the galley bringing the Venetian ambassadors has been sighted. Otello acknowledges this, but continues talking to Iago. Iago is planning to lure Cassio into the hall and into talking about Desdemona.
[2/5] Desdemona enters and once more tries to persuade Otello to reinstate Cassio. Again claiming to have a headache he asks Desdemona for the handkerchief which he gave her. When she is unable to produce it, he becomes violent, accuses her of adultery despite her protestations of innocence, and forces her out of the hall.
[2/6] Alone he reflects on his misery. Iago enters and makes Otello hide behind a pillar.
[2/7] Cassio enters and Iago banters with him about the whore Bianca, but Otello believes them to be talking about Desdemona. Encouraged by Iago, Cassio produces the handkerchief which Iago had earlier planted in his room, and Iago ensures that Otello sees it.
[2/8] While Cassio and Iago admire the handkerchief, Otello believes it to reveal treachery. A trumpet announces the arrival of the Venetian galley and Cassio leaves.
[2/9] A distraught Otello decides to kill Desdemona by poison but Iago suggests smothering her instead. Otello pronounces Iago his captain.
[2/10] The Venetian ambassador, Lodovico, Desdemona, Emilia and the court enter. Lodovico hands Otello a message from the Doge. While reading it, Otello continues to mutter bitter asides at Desdemona. He has been recalled to Venice and Cassio appointed in his place. While announcing that he will set sail the following morning, he flings Desdemona to the ground.
[2/11] Desdemona sings of her misery, and in the ensuing ensemble Iago promises Otello that he will kill Cassio. Otello dismisses the court and curses Desdemona. At this point alone except for Iago, Otello succumbs to a fit of epilepsy. As Otello lies prostrate on the floor, Iago mocks the fallen Lion of Venice.
[2/12] Spoken synopsis of Act IV
Act IV: Desdemona's chamber
[2/13] Emilia helps Desdemona to prepare for bed.
[2/14] Desdemona sadly recalls a song of unrequited love sung by her mother's servant, Barbara, the Willow song.
[2/15] She gives a ring to Emilia, says farewell to her, prays to the Virgin Mary, and goes to bed.
[2/16] Otello enters, places his sword by a lamp, uncertain whether or not to extinguish it. He looks at Desdemona and puts out the light. He kisses the sleeping Desdemona three times – on the third kiss she awakes. He taunts her with her alleged infidelity with Cassio, which she vehemently denies. Otello tells her that Cassio is dead. Shocked, Desdemona pleads for her life but to no avail: Otello strangles her.
[2/17] Emilia immediately enters with the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona calls weakly from her bed, and dies. Emilia cries for help and Lodovico, Cassio, Iago, and Montano enter. Iago is challenged by Emilia, and his plotting revealed: he flees.
[2/18] Completely broken, Otello draws his dagger and stabs himself as he seeks a final kiss from the body of Desdemona.
The source for this reissue is a set of 16 inch lacquer-coated aluminium discs which were recorded nominally at 33rpm. The sound on these discs is astonishing and, for the most part, they are amazingly quiet. I used a light application of CEDAR to reduce occasional crackle but I employed no digital de-noising techniques for fear of compromising the overall sound. I should also mention that I have made no attempt to "enhance" the sound of these broadcasts by adding artificial reverberation. The broadcasts are presented here in their entirety with applause and all of Ben Grauer's announcements included. My only intervention is that I have patched from rehearsals to correct three obvious mistakes during the performance, an unsung line by Iago in Act I, and two flubbed entrances in Act II.
Acts I & II broadcast on 6 December 1947
Acts III & IV broadcast on 13 December 1947
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VERDI: Otello (Vinay, Nelli, Toscanini) (1947)