I don’t normally post full operas, but this recording is special. Please enjoy it. A synopsis is below.
The recording was taken from two specially-lengthened broadcasts on 6th and 13th December, 1947, and is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest ever made of Verdi’s masterpiece, Otello. As NBC announcer Ben Grauer notes in his introduction to the first broadcast, it has a special link to Toscanini, who as a young cellist had played in the world première of the piece, under Verdi’s baton, in La Scala, Milan on 5th February, 1887, some 60 years earlier.
Verdi is regarded by many as especially important to Toscanini, and this is among his greatest recordings – Mortimer Frank writes: “Of all the composers in Toscanini’s repertory, Verdi was probably closest to him… what NBC preserved… if not necessarily representative of his staged performances or of his best work, is often compelling. Given limitations such as occasionally weak casting, they are uneven. But when everything more or less fell into place, as in the complete Otello, a performance of towering merit resulted.”
The recording was made in the very end of the pre-tape era, and would have been preserved over a number of acetate discs. Fortunately these have been remarkably well-preserved in various incarnations, and the results of careful selections of the best possible sources and the magic of both XR remastering and Ambient Stereo processing (direct mono is of course also available) makes a huge impact on the final overall sound quality of the recording. This is one of Toscanini’s greatest masterpieces.
ACT I. Amid thunder and lightning, the people of Cyprus anxiously observe the predicament of a storm-tossed vessel bearing their governor, Otello, on his return from a crucial battle against the Turks. The ship makes port, to the relief of everyone except Iago, an ensign in the service of Otello who had hoped for the latter’s death. Tumultuously welcomed, the dark-skinned hero announces victory over the heathens. While the populace prepares for a celebration, Iago reveals his true feelings to Roderigo, a nobleman hopelessly in love with Otello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago feels slighted by the fact that the young and handsome Cassio was promoted by Otello and wishes to take revenge on both of them. Roderigo is to involve Cassio in a drunken brawl thus spoiling both Cassio’s unblemished record and Otello’s reunion with his wife. Iago’s exuberant drinking-song soon has its desired effect on Cassio. In his cups, he is unable to take charge of his duties. Reprimanded by another officer, Montano, Cassio assaults and wounds him. Otello, called on the scene by the commotion, strips Cassio of his rank just as Desdemona joins him. Iago is to take command and restore order. Otello and Desdemona, alone at last under the star-studded sky, reminisce about the early days of their acquaintance and reaffirm their love for each other. Overcome by emotion, the Moor trembles at the thought that they are now living a moment of such sublime happiness that destiny might never grant them another such hour. Kissing his wife three times, he leads her back into the castle as the morningstar heralds the dawn of a new day.
ACT II. Feigning concern for Cassio’s plight, Iago advises him to seek Desdemona’s help in order to return into the good graces of Otello. After Cassio leaves, Iago soliloquizes on his functions as a tool of the Spirit of Evil. For him, honor, friendship, and love are but meaningless figments of human delusion; and death will be the end of everything. His musings are over when he notices Desdemona who is approached by Cassio. He takes leave just as Otello enters the hall. Otello’s perfunctory question about the man who just left Desdemona gives Iago the cue. He soon succeeds in arousing the Moor’s suspicion. Graciously accepting the homage of the people of Cyprus, Desdemona and Emilia, her lady-in-waiting and the wife of Iago, enter the hall. Otello’s suspicion is reinforced when his wife starts pleading Cassio’s cause. In a fit of anger, Otello rejects Desdemona’s attempt to soothe his discomfort and throws her handkerchief to the ground. Iago, quick to spot possible evidence to support his web of lies, wrenches the handkerchief from Emilia’s hand. After the women leave, Iago, masterfully manipulates Otello’s torn mind, pretends to risk his master’s wrath by offering his services in order to help confirm or allay the Moor’s suspicions, using every opportunity to arouse Otello’s jealousy while warning him of jealousy as a passion against which there is no cure. Otello, nearly convinced of his wife’s treachery, swears to take revenge. In this oath, he is joined by Iago whose own revenge against Otello is already well underway.
ACT III. Awaiting the arrival of a delegation from Venice, Iago continues to spin his intrigue. Having played the handkerchief into the hands of Cassio, he now proceeds to have Otello see it in Cassio’s possession. While he goes out to fetch the unsuspecting Cassio, Otello is joined by his wife. Remaining outwardly calm, Otello soon traps Desdemona into admitting that she does not have the fateful object with her. He warns her of the terrible consequences if she should ever lose it, then orders her to bring it at once. Confused, Desdemona starts to leave, but soon she turns back to him, gently scolding him for feigning anger to ward off her pleading for Cassio. Her naively repeated plea shatters Otello’s composure, and he accuses her of being unfaithful. Obviously shaken, Desdemona protests her innocence. After a terrible outburst of fury, Otello reverts to biting sarcasm as he dismisses her. Near collapsing, the hapless man invokes the mercy of God on his plight, then in somber determination resolves to pursue his course to the bitter end. When Iago brings on Cassio, Otello hides behind a column. During the jovial conversation between the two officers, Iago cleverly leads Cassio in and out of earshot of Otello. Thus, Casio’s remarks about his girlfriend are interpreted by the Moor as being made about Desdemona. At last Cassio produces the handkerchief from his doublet. Pretending to admire it, Iago holds it so that Otello can clearly identify it, thus removing the last vestiges of doubt from the Moor’s mind. While trumpet flourishes announce the arrival of the Venetian delegate, Lodovico, and Iago advise Otello to strangle his wife that very night. Amid the panoply of a festive reception Lodovico, in the name of the Republic of Venice, pays homage to Otello. Nearly insane with grief and fury, Otello reads the orders from his sovereign, directing him to Venice while Cassio is to assume command in Cyprus. Unable to control himself, Otello explodes in wild fury at Desdemona, throwing her to the ground in front of the horrified guests. He orders everyone out of the hall, then, reeling about and muttering incoherently, collapses completely. Unaware of the tragedy taking place inside the castle, the people of Cyprus hail their beloved governor. Contemplating the prostrate body of his master, Iago smugly gloats at the havoc he has wrought.
ACT IV. Desdemona, filled with evil forebodings, prepares to go to sleep. She orders Emilia to dress the bed with the same sheets that were used on her wedding night, then hands her a ring as a keepsake. Sadly, she recalls a touching song she learned from a servant in her parents’ home. After an emotionally charged farewell from her lady-in-waiting, Desdemona say her prayers and goes to bed. Entering silently, Otello approaches the bed and gazes at his sleeping wife. His tender kiss awakens her. Sternly, he tells her what he has come to accomplish. For the first time, he mentions Cassio’s name, but her desperate denial of any wrongdoing goes unheeded. After strangling her, he is calm in the contemplation of what he has done. Emilia discovers the dreadful deed and calls for help. When Otello justifies his action by pointing to his wife’s “adultery,” Emilia, too late, tells the truth about the handkerchief. Thunderstruck, Otello realizes the enormity of his crime. Before anyone can prevent it, he stabs himself. Death overtakes him while he makes one last attempt to kiss the cold lips of his beloved wife.