Verdi’s “Otello” and the Berliner Philharmoniker

With Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado

Peter Glossop as Jago and Jon Vickers as Otello
(Photo: Unitel)

“He gave me a lot of practical tips,” says Zubin Mehta in an interview at the Digital Concert Hall. The “he” in this case is Herbert von Karajan, who the then still young conductor visited in Salzburg to go through the score of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello with the legendary maestro. Mehta, who today is considered one of the important Otello conductors of our time and who this year leads the new production of the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, had in Karajan a coach who knew the opera inside out: the work had accompanied him since his early years as general music director in Aachen, and he was responsible for several new productions at the Vienna State Opera. However, the highlight of his Otello interpretations was the performances at the Salzburg Festival in the early 1970s.

Ideal performers

Karajan, who also directed the production, worked with a dream cast: the tenor Jon Vickers was the Otello of his day. No one else was able to represent the inner descent of the character from the victorious Venetian general to the psychotic murderer driven by jealousy better than him. At his side as a soulful and pure Desdemona was Mirella Freni, who moved audiences with her angelic singing. Peter Glossop’s Iago was cool, calculating and manipulative. The Vienna Philharmonic were in the orchestra pit for the Salzburg performances, while the television and disc recordings with the same vocal ensemble from 1973 were made by Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker. While the sound recordings were made in the Berlin Philharmonie, the action was shot in the studios of Bavaria Film. In order to represent the storm scene with its churning sea at the beginning as realistically as possible, they edited in clips from the film Mutiny on the Bounty. In addition, Karajan makes a cameo in the first act among the guests in the drinking song. Produced by Unitel for ZDF, the film bears vivid testimony to Karajan’s reading of Otello. Nevertheless, the project was not without controversy. The critics praised the musical interpretation without any reservations, but the stage production in the historical monumental style did not receive undivided approval. The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: “The two faces of Karajan: unparalleled as a Verdi conductor, but as a Verdi director, he comes from the Grand Opéra at the time of Meyerbeer. How can one man be such a genius but have so little taste?”

A chamber piece

A complete antithesis to Karajan’s approach was the production of Otello the Berliner Philharmoniker presented to mark the 30th anniversary of the Salzburg Easter Festival on the stage of the Festspielhaus in 1996 under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Abbado had conducted the work for the first time at Milan’s La Scala in 1975. Now he returned to the opera again after 20 years. He conducted a concert performance in Berlin in December 1995 in preparation for the festival. The new production in Salzburg in 1997 was followed by a revival of the production at the Theater in Turin. Abbado also put together a tremendous ensemble of singers: Plácido Doming sang the title role, with Ruggiero Raimondo as the devious Iago. Abbado engaged Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona, a very young and as yet unknown soprano whose haunting interpretation of the role was enthusiastically received and attracted the attention of the international opera world. Ermanno Olmi’s austere, chamber music-like production, which took place on a staircase, focused firmly on the inner drama of the protagonists.

This concentration on the essence of the work was also reflected in Abbado’s transparent musical interpretation. According to the Tagesspiegel, the orchestra was “a furtive and increasingly vehement principal character. Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s sound is as soft as silk soft and strikingly sensitivity. The raging inferno turns into a delicate giant harp”. Of musical historical interest is the fact that in these performances, Verdi’s revised finale of the third act was played, which accentuated the character of Iago. Abbado successfully conveyed a different perspective on the opera to his predecessor. At this year’s Easter Festival, Zubin Mehta, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the director Robert Wilson present another interpretation of the work.

Salzburg 1996: Plácido Domingo and Barbara Frittoli
(Photo: Osterfestspiele Salzburg, Photo Weber/Münster)
Plácido Domingo and Ruggiero Raimondi Berlin 1995: concert performance
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich / Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)