Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello is a magnificent study of blackness and light. Verdi’s darkest opera has been brought to the screen by the master of gesture and symbolism in a manner that
puts its musical components in second place rather than their more usual lead
when performed in the acoustically rich but visually confining opera houses.
As both designer and director, Zeffirelli ensures that his ritornello image, the majestic lion, opens both acts, serves as door-handle match to Iago’s treachery and silently looks
down on the dead, embracing lovers in the final frames, where Desdemona assumes
the shape of Jesus on the cross even as Otello finds that the only battle he
couldn’t win was the one that raged within his soul.
The camera provides much of the characterization, particularly in the early going where the reaction shots of the principals are skillfully intertwined into the music and neatly surrounded
by frames of wood or stone. As the film develops, the near constant, yet
subtle use of partitions, mirrors and back-lighting adds a depth to the theme of
failing-to-unlock-the-truth in our hearts that reminded me of the finest moments
Of the three leads, Justino Díaz steals the show both vocally and dramatically as he oozes his way (nearly always shown descending) on the steps and corridors of the main castle-set whose towering
obelisk would inspire any evil man to perform at his best. The delivery of
his velvety baritone phrases—never forced and with power to spare—was also the
least obvious of the unavoidable lip syncing that on-location opera demands.
As the doomed heroine, Katia Ricciarelli’s Desdemona was a study in control. She is one of the few dramatic sopranos who is not afraid to use understatement in her big arias, holding back
until the drama propels her instrument (as it did in such a breathtaking fashion
in her final payer and "amen") into its full glory. Dramatically, she was
convincing as the happy bride (even enduring her lover’s bosom-feeding and
Cassio’s somewhat incongruous breast-adoring eyes during the reassignment scene)
but her confusion over Otello’s fatal jealousy never rang true.
Plácido Domingo used his dark, flexible voice effectively, although the top was, disappointingly, just under the mark at the big moments in Act I. Despite the heroic attempts from the makeup,
hair and costume staff, he just doesn’t look black: whatever success there was
with the curls on his head was belied by a beard that couldn’t have been grown
by any Moor!
Lorin Maazel conducted La Scala Orchestra and Chorus with energy and enthusiasm. The brass rewarded him with some wonderfully edgy declamations and the strings (although a bit portamenti
rich), were solid, providing both singers and woodwinds alike with ample
support. The chorus was outstanding and the children’s voices added an
unforgettable colour to the first banquet scene that was only outdone by the
Unfortunately, the recorded balance of the musical forces was uneven, with the singers often sounding further away than the camera wanted us to believe. Given the massive editing job this production
required, that wasn’t surprising but the inconsistency of the soundscape was distracting.
Nonetheless, the rich detail will reward many subsequent viewings: candles for Desdemona and Otello (haunting when he loses his faith and drops his crucifix into the flame); torch light and
hell-themed surroundings for Iago—he looked right at home; and just a hint of
sexual ambiguity in Iago’s recollection of his "eavesdropping" on the sleeping
Cassio (performed with just the right touch of captain-next-door by Urbano
Barberini), whose roaming hands on his beautiful bare torso added unexpected
heat to the lie; the larger-than-life shadows that followed Otello’s descent
into madness prior to the murders—just a few of the highlights.
This production favoured the vision rather than sound of Verdi’s score, but—given the result—it was a compromise made in heaven. JWR