There is no doubt in my mind that Plàcido Domingo is the greatest interpreter of Otello, especially in the last 30 years of the twentieth century. Not only as a singer, but also as an actor Domingo knows how to adapt to his partners in a really brilliant way, thus his interpretation always fascinates and it is never the same twice. Sir Laurence Olivier, one of the greatest British actors, once said: ‘Domingo plays Othello as well as I do, and he has that voice!’
Domingo’s fascination with Otello started early on. In 1960 he made his debut in this opera, but as Cassio. In 1962 – it was also the last time he sang the role – he sang opposite Mario del Monaco’s Otello. In his memoirs he writes that he already knew then that Otello was going to be his ‘dream role’.
He sang his very first ‘Moor from Venice’ in Hamburg, on 28 September, 1975. He himself says it is one of the most important dates in his career. Desdemona was sung by the very young Katia Ricciarelli and the opera was conducted by James Levine. The complete production is now available on You Tube:
A year later the opera was performed at the Milanese Scala. It was the first collaboration between Domingo and Carlos Kleiber (outside of studio production). Mirella Freni sang Desdemona and Piero Cappuccilli Jago. It was broadcast live on Italian TV and it is now also on You Tube.
There is a sound recording also. It has been released on various pirate labels and can also be found on Spotify. It is actually mandatory for lovers of the opera, despite the poor quality of the sound and the abcense of a few bars from the third act (something happened in the audience).
Another fantastic live Otello comes from London, recorded on 19 February 1978. Again with Carlos Kleiber, but Desdemona was sung by Margaret Price and Silvano Carroli was Jago. Very exciting.
Of all his studio recordings of Otello, the one from – once RCA now Sony- released in 1978, is the one I hold most dear. Desdemona was sung by Renata Scotto and she gave the role an extra dimension. She was not only innocent, but also audibly angry, sad and scared. Sherrill Milnes was a devilish Jago and the whole was led by James Levine.
Opus Arte (OA R3102) has released an old-fashioned, beautiful performance from Covent Garden (director Elijah Moshinsky). It was recorded in October 1992. With her beautiful lyrical soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa is a dream of a Desdemona. Her passivity fits the role well, especially as it is also very much within the director’s concept. Sergei Leiferkus (Jago) is not really idiomatic in Italian, but he sings and acts well and the orchestra, under the firm leadership of Georg Solti, plays the stars from the sky.
The same production was given at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1996 and recorded by Deutsche Grammophon (0730929). It was a milestone in opera history, because Renée Fleming made her unparalleled debut in the role of Desdemona.
She really made my heart contract with sorrow and emotion. Her ‘Willow Song’ with the strongly accentuated repetitions of ‘cantiamo’, her angelic ‘Ave Maria’, her oh-so-human played despair, disbelief and sorrow – no one could remain unmoved.
The lyrical tenor Richard Croft was also visually well cast as Cassio, and the whole production was under the thrilling leadership of maestro Levine.