If we needed reminding that Sir Colin Davis is a national treasure, Nicholas Kenyon’s announcement of the Queen’s Medal awarded to him for services to music was an opportunity for a standing ovation before we’d heard one note of Otello.
Over the last few years, the LSO Live CD label has built up into an impressive catalogue of recordings, based on live performances by the orchestra, mostly under its former Principal Conductor (now President).
Of the late quartet of Verdi operas, they have already tackled Falstaff and now add Otello to the list, drawn from last night’s concert performance, which is repeated on Sunday.
One could be forgiven, in the first half of the evening, for thinking that the principals, although among the finest of acting singers around today, were not quite comfortable in the Italian repertoire.
A fine Wagnerian, Simon O’Neill did a grand job as Otello, standing in at very short notice for an indisposed Torsten Kerl, but one couldn’t help feeling he wasn’t quite on top of things. Forgiveable, as he was in part sight-reading, so an extraordinary achievement anyway.
Anne Schwanewilms is a great Straussian (when will we see her Marschallin at Covent Garden?) but she seemed ill at ease with the Italian language and Gerald Finley gave Iago all his considerable acting skills and gorgeously rich bass-baritone but didn’t come across as a natural Verdian.
The LSO was magnificent in the opening of Act 1 and the glorious end of the second but nevertheless had its wobbles along the way and even the London Symphony Chorus had a few dodgy moments, particularly in the second act flower chorus, which Davis took at a hell of a lick.
If one felt slight discomfort by the interval, everything came together in the second half. The Act 3 ensemble was ravishing and Act 4 was simply sublime. Schwanewilms’ “Willow Song” was utterly beautiful, with a still, concentrated sadness that only she among current sopranos can bring, and the playing matched her. O’Neill’s “Niun me tema” was almost unbearably moving, showing that he has a great Otello in him and it’s not too far out of reach.
Support was strong throughout the evening. If one is tempted to liken Ben Johnson’s Rodrigo and Allan Clayton’s Cassio to Ant and Dec, it didn’t detract from the beauty of their singing and the contrast between Finley’s mature, glowering Iago and their youthful appearance paid off, as this malevolent Don Alfonso manipulated the boys to his evil ends.
The baritones, Matthew Rose’s resonant Montano and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s handsome Lodovico, were both outstanding and Eufemia Tufano was a sympathetic and rich Emilia.
If the first half of Sunday’s performance can rise to the same heights, this will be another LSO Live recording to treasure.