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 Recording of the Week  Verdi's Otello from the LSO and Colin Davis

When New Zealand-born tenor Simon O’Neill was drafted in at a day’s notice to replace the unwell Torsten Kerl for the title role in a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello last December, no one (including him) really knew quite how well it would go. He had never previously sung the role in public and having no plans to do so until 2012 there were a number of passages that he hadn’t even particularly looked at before. His achievement then is all the more remarkable, as this is one of the most dramatically sung and exciting performances you are ever likely to hear. Considering that this is renowned as one of the more difficult roles in the tenor’s operatic repertoire, the commitment and passion with which he throws himself at the role is almost unbelievable.

Gerald Finley and Simon O'Neill
Gerald Finley and Simon O'Neill

The recording has just been released on LSO Live.

But it is not just the singing of Simon O’Neill that makes this recording stand out. From the opening crashing storm scene you find yourself on the edge of your seat, as Sir Colin Davis - who conducts as though he is half his age - draws savage and terrifying playing from the London Symphony Orchestra. The dynamic range is immense and performance is characterised by both real theatrical power and emotional intensity. You really do sense that like O’Neill the orchestra are playing just beyond their real comfort zone at times and this is thrilling to hear. Part of the dynamic range comes from the contribution of the London Symphony Chorus, which punctuates proceedings with telling and powerful singing throughout. I’m told that although there were two performances from which to make the CD recording, the bulk of it comes from the first performance, as it was just so much more exciting.

O’Neill has a clean, clear, almost effortless voice. He doesn’t have the rich baritonal tones which someone like Domingo brought to this role, but his phrasing is beautiful and his top notes really ring. Anne Schwanenwilms’ Desdemona (Otello’s wife) gets better as the recording goes on and, while her intonation isn’t always spot on, her ‘Ave Maria’ in Act IV is really quite special.

The other big success though for me is Gerald Finley's Jago (the villain). Gerald Finley has a wonderful voice and I’m a big fan of his, but I did have two worries before hearing this recording – firstly that his voice might be too light for such a big Verdi role and he would struggle to compete against the power of the LSO, and secondly that he didn’t have the colour in his voice to portray the evilness of his character. I’m pleased to say that these fears were largely unfounded on both accounts. Even in the loudest orchestral passages he still just about manages to cut through. Meanwhile his smooth and velvety tone succeeds where many others have struggled in portraying the calculated and cunning aspect of his villainy (which is vital in order to appreciate why Otello believes his lies). It is an outstanding performance and one to which others will now be compared.

The whole performance is exhilarating and it comes very highly recommended.

Verdi: Otello

Simon O’Neill (Otello), Gerald Finley (Iago), Anne Schwanewilms (Desdemona), Allan Clayton (Cassio), Ben Johnson (Roderigo), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Lodovico), Matthew Rose (Montano), Lukas Jakobski (Herald) & Eufemia Tufano (Emilia)

London Symphony Chorus & London Symphony Orchestra, r Colin Davis

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC