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Any opera company that produces Otello faces a welter of challenges, not least the casting of the title role, and two new films demonstrate many of the problems and pitfalls that abound. Stuart Neill takes the lead at the Macerata Festival (Dynamic 37767), José Cura at the Salzburg Easter Festival (C Major 740008). Neill has the range and volume – the sudden vocal ascents hold no horror for him – but has little to say about the role. His vocal inflection is unvaried, his acting stolid. Cura, on the other hand, offers a thoughtful interpretation and captures Otello’s psychological disintegration. Alas his voice is in shreds, his strangulated ‘Esultate’ giving notice of the rocky journey ahead – crooning, snatched notes above the stave, yelps, very dubious intonation, it’s all here. Otherwise, Salzburg fares better with its remaining cast. Carlos Álvarez offers a subtle Iago, seemingly fascinated by his own psychopathic impulses, and his rich baritone powers through the role. Dorothea Röschmann’s Desdemona is finely vocalised, albeit in a rather cool voice, but she has the measure of the part. She is unfortunately bewigged (nature did not intend her as a blonde), and the grotesque downlighting does nobody any favours. With Georg Zeppenfeld as Lodovico and Benjamin Bernheim as Cassio there are some compensations for the vocal disaster at the centre of the performance. Macerata does not offer such luxuries. Roberto Frontali’s Iago is unremittingly loud. His drinking song is humourless and unsubtle, and the duet at the end of Act II is reduced to him and Neill shouting at each other. Jessica Nuccio is a passable Desdemona, though at times somewhat fluttery and shrill.

Both stagings have to contend with incredibly wide stages and use comparable solutions. At Macerata, Paco Azorín’s production lines up the singers and lets them do their own thing. It looks as though his budget was a few hundred Euros. Vincent Boussard obviously has more resources to play with in Salzburg, and he too pushes the action to the front, using a series of simple but sophisticated screens and drops to focus attention on his detailed direction of the cast. Both resort to extras for effect: Azorín uses stagily camp devils; Boussard a sombre angel (presumably of fate) who drifts amongst the cast, and whose wings at one point burst dramatically into flames – an effect that unfortunately comes across like a giant fart. In Italy, conductor Riccardo Frizza does what he can to hold everything together, but his orchestra and chorus are not world class. Salzburg’s Christian Thielemann has more to work with and makes the most of it, with a glossy sheen on the playing of the Dresden Staatskapelle.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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