So, another lip synched film from the 1970s. This time it’s Verdi’s Otello starring Jon Vickers and Mirella Freni. What makes this one a bit different is that Herbert von Karajan not only conducts but directs as well. It’s a curious piece with fantastic music making but no real production concept, continuity errors, some very dodgy acting and puzzling cinematography in places. It’s never dull though.
Karajan appears to have set the piece in Malta around 1400 to judge by the costumes. This comes as a bit of a surprise after an opening storm scene featuring a square rigged three masted ship. A very poor replica of the filmed ship is moored at the dock during the welcome for Othello. From then on the direction is pretty much entirely conventional with quite basic blocking and a fair bit of “park and bark”. Vickers looks as if he has been left to his own devices acting wise as he treats us to one of films more staggering displays of over-acting. It’s a bit like a parody of Olivier’s Richard III with a bit of John Cleese in the stoning scene from Life of Brian thrown in. There’s also a fair bit of trade mark Vickers “shambling bear”. Freni as Desdemona and, especially, Peter Glossop as Jago are rather better but the Royal Shakespeare Company this is not.
The cinematography also swings between the unexceptional and the puzzling. Generally the camera is very busy and in very close though without ever conjuring up the kind of thought provoking artificiality of a Ponelle or a Friedrich. The best shots are when we get to see a bit more of the action as in the welcome of the envoys from Venice or the fanfare scene. What we get a lot of are back lit head shots with a kind of halo. It’s retro enough by 1970s standards but after a while it started to remind me strongly of something else, especially when the subject was the blonde, blue eyed, strong jawed Jago. Yes, it looks like a poster for Strength through Joy. Can Karajan, of all people, really have intended that? There are enough cinematic clichés elsewhere to fill a bingo card.
Where I can’t fault this disk is the music making. Karajan’s conducting is majestic. He seems to extract maximum emotional and dramatic value out of every bar and he’s splendidly backed up by the Berlin Philharmoniker and the Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, not to mention the soloists. The three principals are terrific. Vickers is a gorgeously toned, powerful voice with no hint of harshness even at full bore. Indeed the only time he doesn’t sound so good is when he’s throttling right back when he can get a bit nasal. Peter Glossop’s Jago is also very fine and very, very nasty. The “I believe in a cruel God” aria is really quite chilling. The real glory though is Freni’s Desdemona. OK I’m a sucker for Freni’s voice but here it’s just gorgeous and the Ave Maria is heartbreaking. When I hear singing like this I begin to think I “get” Verdi. I also sort of get the “we don’t hear singing like that anymore” thing.
The DTS 5.1 sound (which I guess must be a remix of a stereo recording) on this disk is very good indeed. It’s accurate, spacious and has a very wide dynamic range. My only complaint would be that at times the chorus is balanced almost inaudibly back from the orchestra. There’s also PCM stereo. The 4:3 picture is obviously a film to digital transfer at TV standard resolution. It’s got pleasant muted colours but is fairly soft focus. The only bonuses are the trailers that are on every other DGG disk of this vintage. There are Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese subtitles.
So, this is a bit of a mixed bag but worth a look. And FWIW this is the 150th DVD to be reviewed in this blog.