OP3311. OTELLO, Live Performance, 9 Feb., 1952, w.Stiedry Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Ramon Vinay, Eleanor Steber, Leonard Warren, Martha Lipton, etc. [This is the matinee performance, the evening of which Steber also sang Fiordiligi!] (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-803. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
"July 17, 2019 marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of the noted American soprano Eleanor Steber, and St. Laurent Studio is paying tribute with three releases of live performances from her prime decade, the 1950s: OTELLO, ARABELLA and DON CARLOS.
Steber is the principal reason for acquiring the present set. Ramon Vinay’s fine Otello is better heard under the baton of two great conductors, Toscanini on RCA/BMG and Furtwängler on Orfeo. Leonard Warren’s superb Iago from the Met is available on a number of labels. But this is Steber’s only recorded performance as Desdemona, and a radiant and deeply moving one it is.
Her singing is free and glorious as sheer vocalism. Top notes gleam with no sense of strain, dynamic shading is exquisitely applied, and her rhythmic sense is very keen (important in the third act duet with Otello). Beyond all this, she conveys the full scope of the character - Desdemona’s innocence, strength in her belief in the blamelessness of Cassio, passion in her protestations of her own innocence, and dignity in her interactions with the populace. That third-act duet is a high point for Steber’s dramatic skills. Desdemona’s confusion and ultimate heartbreak at Otello’s accusations are palpable, but on the line ‘E son io l’innocente’, Steber sings with a depth of emotion that leave no doubt in our minds about her innocence toward Cassio, regardless of what the jealous Otello believes.
In Act IV the ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’ are rendered with steady, pure tone. At the same time, Steber, more than any other soprano I can think of, makes clear Desdemona’s deep sorrow and fear through the use of a pale, hollow sound at the beginning of the prayer. Before that, at the crucial line where Desdemona cries out ‘Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio’, Steber practically explodes, her voice filled with terror and anguish. This is one of the most complete portrayals of the character I have ever encountered. That it is also beautifully sung is almost a bonus.
Historically the Chilean tenor Vinay was the principal Otello between Giovanni Martinelli and Mario del Monaco, and he sang the role all over the world. His fund of experience, along with his ability as a vocal actor, carries the day here despite the fact that Vinay is not in his best voice. He never had the Italian squillo of either of those two other great tenors, but here his tone is covered and woolly, particularly in the first act. This flaw almost doesn’t matter, however, because the intensity and dramatic truth of Vinay’s performance sweep any reservations aside. His interchange with Desdemona just prior to killing her is terrifying. The subsequent final scene, after Otello has discovered his culpability and stabbed himself, is heartbreaking.
Warren was, of course, one of the greatest Verdi baritones at the Met, and he owned the role of Iago there. His basic voice quality was lush and warm, but Warren was also a fine vocal actor who could narrow his tone toward harshness when the moment required it. His singing of ‘Era la notte’ is the epitome of insinuation, and his Credo is a powerful statement of Iago’s inherent evil. The line ‘Ecco il Leone’ at the end of the third act teems with poisonous irony.
Much of the success of the performance is due to Fritz Stiedry, an Austrian conductor who came to the United States having fled from the Nazis, and who made a good career at the Met. Stiedry remains largely unknown, however, because he made very few recordings and did not develop a comparable symphonic career. There are moments of dramatic passion that can only be found in the OTELLO performances of Toscanini, Furtwängler, James Levine, and a few other great maestros, but overall Stiedry delivers deeply felt conducting that constantly reflects the drama of the moment while maintaining the whole arc of the score.
Most of the smaller roles are very well done by Met stalwarts, except perhaps for Osie Hawkins’ raw-toned Montano. Worthy of singling out are Martha Lipton’s Emilia, Thomas Hayward’s Cassio, and Paul Franke’s Roderigo (Franke was to become the house Cassio in future years). St. Laurent Studio recordings are always bare bones in the lack of program notes, but they come with full cast information and track listings. The sound here is surprisingly full and clear for a 1952 radio broadcast. In an era when there were Desdemonas the quality of Tebaldi, Albanese, and de los Angeles, it should not surprise us that Steber wasn’t identified with the role. In this performance, however, she demonstrates that she belongs with the others, and she makes the role her own in many ways.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“This performance of Verdi's OTELLO, the first of the season and the first since '48-'49, was one of the most dramatically overwhelming interpretations of the work I have ever witnessed. Musically, also, it was of a high order. Verdi, Shakespeare, and Boito had inspired all of the artists, vocal and instrumental, to one of those spontaneous performances that are so vivid that they seem almost unreal afterwards. To Fritz Stiedry, conducting the work for the first time at the Metropolitan; to Herbert Graf, the stage director; to Ramon Vinay, in the title role, to Eleanor Steber, in her first Metropolitan appearance as Desdemona, to Leonard Warren as Iago, and to the others in the cast one can offer warm congratulations.
Ramon Vinay has sung the role of Otello several times at the Metropolitan, but never, to my knowledge, with such incandescent passion, such heartbreaking intensity, as he did at this performance. Vocally, he was far from perfect, and his voice was not in good condition until the second act; but it would be critically out of focus to enlarge upon minor flaws of vocalism in the case of an interpretation so magnificent in its grasp of the character and in so much of its musical delivery. This Otello could be favorably compared with some of the great performances of the role on the legitimate stage. At times Mr. Vinay overacted, but all reservations were swept away by the burning sincerity and the psychological truth of his conception. Nothing was finer than the last act, which left many of the audience in tears; it would have been difficult to remain calm in the face of so convincing a portrayal of the final tragedy.
In this act, also, Miss Steber's acting had a finish she has seldom equaled. Her Desdemona is perhaps the most original and convincing characterization she has ever created at the Metropolitan. From beginning to end, it was consistent, faithful to Verdi's indications, and sensitive to the unwritten nuances of the score. She looked young and radiant, and her singing was often beautiful. She was able, in the first act, to obey Verdi's constant admonitions, ‘dolce’, ‘morendo’, ‘Come una voce lontana’, without sacrificing the luminous texture of her voice; and in the third sang pathetically without sounding petulant or whimpering. In the fourth act her sudden outburst of terror, ‘Chi batte a quella porta?’ was skillfully portrayed, and the last, impassioned farewell to Emilia on that unexpected phrase descending from a high A-sharp that is one of the supreme moments in Verdi was poignantly sung. The plastique of the struggle with Otello and the strangling was a model of what operatic acting can be when it is clearly worked out in advance and executed spontaneously in performance.
Like many of the artists in the cast, Mr. Warren improved noticeably after the first act. Neither Mr. Vinay nor Miss Steber quite conveyed the rapture of the love scene at the end of Act I, and Mr. Warren's performance of the drinking song, earlier, was rhythmically and tonally uneven. He sang ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ thrillingly; and he has never performed ‘Era la notte’ with lovelier tone quality or more dramatic power. He seemed to be reliving a dream, without a suspicion of the terrible revelations it contained. At the end of Act III, Mr. Warren seated himself on the throne, instead of planting his foot on Otello's prostrate body at the words, ‘Ecco il Leone’. It was an effective and justifiable bit of stage business, for Iago is ambitious, and the throne is a potent symbol in his mind.
Mr. Hayward sang the role of Cassio with better tone and diction than he has revealed in a long time in other parts. His acting was intelligent, if still somewhat stiff. Miss Lipton was really sympathetic, not the routine confidante that Emilia often becomes at the hands of a less conscientious artist.
Fritz Stiedry's OTELLO was a profound and deeply moving conception of the score. It did not achieve at some points the boiling passion and sonorous splendor of Arturo Toscanini's, nor was it as infallible as George Szell's in its calculation of balances and textures in Act I and Act III. But in the essentials, in color, psychological penetration, command of expression in the orchestra and on the stage, in reaching the core of the human tragedy, it was splendidly right.”
- Robert Sabin, MUSICAL AMERICA
“[Eleanor] had an innate feeling for Mozart and Strauss, and had a loveliness of tone that recalled the voice of a great predecessor, Edith Mason.”
- Rosa Ponselle, A SINGER’S LIFE, p.203