Otello

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: November 23, 2003
A spectacular version of Verdi's Otello

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 Casablanca.

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 charming ballet.

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

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Director - Franco Zeffirelli
Conductor - Lorin Maazel
Libretto - Arrigo Boito
Music - Giuseppe Verdi
Cinematography - Ennio Guarnieri
Production Design - Franco Zeffirelli
Repertoire:
Otello - Giuseppe Verdi
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