Otello - LSO / Davis - Barbican, 3 December 2009
You sneeze, you lose. With Torsten Kerl off sick, the pages of lastminutetenor.com yielded Simon O'Neill. Not the most obvious choice of Otello, even for a concert performance like this one. Indeed you could scour the big Wagnerian's resume and find no mention of Verdi whatsoever. But his bright, hard edged voice proved an excellent fit, and his unfamiliarity with the score was barely noticeable. Now that the role is associated more with darker baritonal tenors like Domingo, the clarity and ease of O'Neill's thrilling top notes hinted at a long-gone golden age. The short-fused Moor's temper flashes perhaps didn't spark quickly enough, but it was impossible not to be moved by Otello's final agonised moments.
The rest of the casting was just as brave, and nearly as successful. The only authentic Italian in the cast was Eufemia Tufano, an understated Emilia. Desdemona's purity and incorruptibility were perfectly evoked in the unearthly silvery soprano of Anne Schwanewilms, even if her delivery was some distance north of Italianate. The London Symphony Chorus trumped her for sheer incomprehensibility though - I didn't catch one single word of their spirited singing all night.
Gerald Finley's intelligently drawn Iago schemed with devious charm. But ultimately he lacks the fundamental heft for this role, as even a golden voice spinning meticulously-crafted phrases cannot conceal. Bantamweight tenors Allan Clayton and Ben Johnson were effective as Cassio and Roderigo, and a trio of magnificent basses - Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Matthew Rose and Lukas Jakobski - rounded off the ensemble.
Sir Colin Davis, we were informed before the concert, has just been awarded the Queen's Medal for Music. Typically, he was keener to get on with the show than acknowledge the predictable ovation. His hard-driven first act lacked a degree of dramatic nuance - when everything's loud, fast and exciting, perversely, nothing is. But with the excess fuel burned off, a more measured approach proved infinitely more compelling. The second half in particular simmered and glowed, sweeping into blazing climaxes, yet eggshell-delicate beneath Desdemona's beautiful Willow Song. A rapturous intensity revealed so many details I'd never noticed before.
A recording will be stitched together from this performance and the repeat on 6 December. Not a purist's Otello perhaps but a vivid reminder that at 82, Sir Colin Davis is still on top of his game.
***** more photos on next page *****