Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Furtwaengler's uniquely unidiomatic Otello

Verdi: Otello. Vinay, Martinis, Schoeffler; Furtwaengler, cond. Vienna Philharmonic Orch. & Chorus (EMI All429: 2 CD's, recorded in 1951 at the Salzburg Festival)

Furtwaengler's 1951 Salzburg performance of Verdi's Otello isn't exactly to the manner born. Nor is the singing ideal from the technical standpoint; but the cast collaborates magnificently to bring Furtwaengler's conception of the score to life. Just compare the exquisitely detailed performance of Vinay to his straitjacketed work for Toscanini, and there you have in a nutshell the difference between the two conductors.

Before listening to this performance, one needs to throw any preconceived notions about "idiomatic" Italian opera out the window. Toscanini's Otello is most emphatically that: Toscanini's. In the Furtwaengler performance, however, the conductor's ego is subjugated to the composer's/author's. The drama springs forth from the page as if it's happening for the very first time.

It's one of the most dramatically gripping performances of opera I've ever heard.



At 10:19 AM, Blogger William D. Kasimer said...

I can't entirely agree with you about this one, Mitch. I'm as big a Furtwaengler fan as anyone, but even he can't do much with this cast. It's not merely that Martinis and Schoeffler aren't "Italianate" - they really don't sing very well, and I find Schoeffler quite dull. His Italian isn't simply unidiomatic - it sounds as though he really doesn't understand what he's singing about. As for Vinay, any interpretive gains are offset by the fact that he's in poorer voice than for Toscanini, and not nearly as well recorded; the WF Otello sounds pretty poor (at least in the EMI release I have), even by the standards of the day.

While I often find Toscanini overly driven, his Otello certainly has a visceral excitement, and his singers, particularly Valdengo, are better, and better recorded. It's not my ideal Otello, but it's certainly a more "central" and enjoyable (for me, at least), than the Furtwaengler, which strikes me more as a curiosity - a "tease" about what WF might have accomplished in Italian opera if he'd been inclined in that direction, and been given singers up to the task.


At 9:41 PM, Blogger Mitchell Kaufman said...

Well, Schoeffler clearly does not know the role--in Italian--it's true: the prompter is distinctly audible, and is right on his ass after every line. But that qualification is an important one. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he performed the role in German quite extensively, because he's musically superb--if not linguistically. If there needs to be a tradeoff, I'd have to go that way. For example, Aldo Protti (twice over for Decca) sings in idiomatic Italian, but vocally and interpetively seems nothing more than a cipher--give me Schoeffler any day.

Vinay is not a singer one goes to for "voice," per se, anyway, so a slight drop-off vis-a-vis Toscanini doesn't really bend me out of shape. (I mean, how can you really tell?) Otherwise, his performance for Furtie seems to come more from the heart, and less slavishly from the printed page.

Yes, it's true that Martinis is a total loss vocally, though again, she does throw herself into the role with abandon. That said, unlike Vinay, she cannot be counted as an asset.

My overall feelings about Toscanini will become clear as this blog goes on, but suffice it to say that I'm not a fan, and for all the reasons evident in this Otello. We can at least say that the orchestra plays together, the singers sing together, and the chorus chors together.

As for the sound, there isn't much that I'd compare positively to the Toscanini recording; if WF's version is to be it, than so be it. At this sonic level, though, I'm not sure it matters.


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