Desdemona’s Triumph : Renee Fleming Steals the Spotlight From Domingo in Met’s Version of ‘Otello’

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The opera presented by the mighty Metropolitan on PBS tonight at 8 is Verdi’s “Otello.” The gentleman in the treacherous title role is very famous and, within his natural limitations, very good. But in this instance, the vehicle should have been called “Desdemona.”

It isn’t that Renee Fleming, the wifely soprano in question, outclasses her vaunted partner, Placido Domingo. It’s just that Fleming is virtually perfect in a part that could have been written with her specific gifts in mind. And Domingo--for all his talent, intelligence and experience--has to do some hefty stretching to meet the heavyweight demands of the Moor of Venice.

At this juncture, the Domingo Otello is a familiar commodity. The Spanish tenorissimo has met the challenge three times in nine years at the Music Center Opera. He has starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s awful film version and can be seen on video in a Covent Garden production remarkably similar to the current Met version.


At 54, Domingo brings to Otello the advantages of a fine voice, a probing mind and a picturesque persona (awkward blackface makeup notwithstanding). He has learned to husband his resources wisely in this cruel marathon, and, wherever possible, he sings beautifully. What he doesn’t do--cannot do--is make the tragic hero bigger than life. His voice is a size too small for the thunderous outbursts, and his top tones lack the plangent edge that makes the climaxes really climactic.

He was in reasonably good form when this production was filmed in New York last October. Still, as the evening progresses, one notes an increasing degree of strain. A resourceful lirico-spinto, it would seem, has been sent in to do the work of a tenore robusto. The latter, alas, has become a nearly extinct species.

Fleming offers the sort of Desdemona that inspires tiresome operatic fossils afflicted with a historical conscience--this one, for instance--to sing catalog arias. In her prime at 36, Fleming commands the gleaming timbral warmth of Renata Tebaldi at her best. She phrases with the sensitivity of a Schwarzkopf, the simplicity of a Jurinac and the urgency of a Scotto. Best of all, perhaps, she floats pianissimo tones worthy of Zinka Milanov.

She projects the heroine’s innocence with fierce honesty and manages to make her stubborn devotion to the raging Otello persuasive as well as poignant. She brings uncommon passion to the love duet, uncommon dignity to the concertato in the scene with the Venetian ambassador. She breaks all hearts in the ultimate “Ave Maria.” Musically and dramatically, this is an exquisite performance.

James Morris has to do some fancy manipulation to wind his dark bass around the baritonal lines of Iago. He does so with success some of the time. Histrionically, he settles for the bland platitudes that serve him just as well as Don Giovanni, and his modern hairstyle looks distinctly odd in 15th century Cyprus.

In an age oddly bereft of genuine Verdi baritones, he represents little more than another conscientious stopgap. But we have endured worse miscasting, and no doubt will again.


Apart from a superannuated Roderigo (Charles Anthony), the supporting ensemble is strong. Richard Croft introduces an unusually boyish, sympathetic Cassio. Jane Bunnell does all that can be done, and more, with the whimpering platitudes of Emilia. Alexander Anisimov imbues Lodovico, the visiting Venetian, with nice paternal valor.

Celebrating his 25th anniversary at the Met, James Levine has taken over the baton from the eccentric Valery Gergiev, ensuring stability and grandeur in the process. The Met orchestra plays brilliantly, as it always does when the boss is in the pit.

Elijah Moshinsky’s production, new last season, is solidly conventional. Michael Yeargan’s towering sets tread a precarious line between realism and stylization. Peter Hall’s costumes focus period opulence.

None of these elements matters much, however, because Brian Large, the ubiquitous camera director, concentrates on close-ups. In some respects, this “Otello” isn’t so much about jealousy as it is about perspiration.

* “Otello” airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.