Verdi: Otello (Met Live CD) – James McCracken, Montserrat Caballé

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Verdi: Otello (Met Live CD) – James McCracken, Montserrat Caballé

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Artists: James McCracken, Montserrat Caballé, Tito Gobbi, Ermanno Lorenzi, Gabor Carelli, Shirley Love, Clifford Harvuot, Raymond Michalski, Russell Christopher, Metropolitan Opera & Chorus
Conductor: Zubin Mehta
Number of Discs: 1
Label: Metropolitan Opera
Release Date: December 13, 2021

Live performance recorded March 11, 1967

There never was a tenor quite like James McCracken – a veritable force of nature vocally, with a singular sound, he fought his way to an international career that would come to be dominated by his seething portrayal of the title role of Verdi’s Otello

McCracken joined the Met roster in 1953, making a blink-and-miss-it debut as Parpignol in La Bohème. Four years later, he left for Europe, frustrated by the Met management’s failure to see his potential in leading roles. International success in the next six years, particularly as Otello, changed everything. McCracken returned to the Met in triumph in 1963, beginning a long, rewarding second career with the company in a new production of Otello.

That staging, with McCracken, made its first appearance at the new Met on February 27, 1967, with a first-rate cast that included Montserrat Caballé as Desdemona, Tito Gobbi as Iago, and Zubin Mehta conducting. 

The March 11, 1967, broadcast captures the excitement of great artists “in the zone.” McCracken’s finely sung Otello rages with a raw-nerve fury but also brings heroic tenderness to the love duet and his final moment. Caballé’s singing, regal in its beauty throughout, gives way to towering passion in Desdemona’s clash with Otello in Act III. Gobbi is utter, impeccable evil as Iago, heard in the savage glee he finally takes in hurling Cassio’s name, like a knife, at Otello at the end of Act II. 

Reviewing the opening-night performance in the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote, “Mr.  McCracken is today’s great Otello, and most likely the best since Giovanni Martinelli. His voice is as full as ever, but it is now used with finesse and style…. His is a burly, powerful Otello: powerful vocally and dramatically.” 

Schonberg found Caballé’s Desdemona hitting its stride notably in Act IV, where she “used her famous pianissimo to wonderful effect. Her singing in both the ‘Salce, salce’ and the ‘Ave Maria’ was pure, lovely, exactly on pitch and unforced. The likes of it has not been heard at the Metropolitan Opera since the days of the young Tebaldi.” 

Hailing Gobbi as “a superlative singing actor,” Schonberg praised his subtlety onstage and noted that the baritone “fully held his own with Mr. McCracken in the ‘Sì, pel ciel’ duet.”

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Giuseppe Verdi’s four-act opera, Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, is set in the late 15th century on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Otello is the 25th title of the 26 operas, which were composed by Verdi. He was 74 years old when he wrote it (1884-1886).

The story adheres closely to the Bard’s play. Otello, an African Moor and general in the Venetian army returns home to a plot of deception created by his subordinate, Iago, which goes awry and leads Otello into a fit of rage resulting in his murder of Desdemoda, his beloved wife. Otello falls on his dagger in despair at what he has done in the final scene, which is an oft-studied subject in literature, opera and psychology.

Before she dies in Act 3, Desdemona sings two well-known arias, “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria.”

In the Met’s 2018/2019 season, modern architectural sets were used to create a contemporary feeling, appropriate for a story, which rings as true today as it did in the 15th century.

World premiere in Teatro alla Scala, Milan, February 5, 1887


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