Karajan’s Otello

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.

4 thoughts on “Karajan’s Otello

  1. Happy 150th review! A great one, as usual! I haven’t seen this “Otello” myself, but it definitely sounds like a spiritual successor to the 1967 “Carmen” studio film, also conducted and directed by Karajan and featuring Vickers and Freni (+ Grace Bumbry in the title role). Pretty much everything you say about this one applies to that one too – just replace “Malta around 1400” with “a cliche-filled Spain/Mexico hybrid somewhere in the first half of the 20th century.”

  2. Ha ha. Some funny bits in your review. I’m taking a break after watching the first act of this version and I am surprised at how dull it is. After a reasonably exciting opening (for the editor, cinematographer and set decorators can probably take most credit) the rest of the act is a real dud. I’ve never been particular impressed by Vickers as compared to some other interpreters of the role. I find his voice neither pleasing nor especially lyrical, and his acting is atrocious. It’s a shame because physically he is quite an imposing figure. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to know what to do with all that bulk. At least his hair and makeup in this film goes for a more subtle Arab look than the laughably bad Jim Kelly afro in the live Met production from ’78. As for Iago, Glossop starts out promising but then really fumbles the drinking song. His “be-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-va” is clumsily executed, as if it was Iago who was drunk. I’m hoping he gets it together for the second act!

    As far as lip-synched versions go, I think the 1958 Italian telefilm with del Monaco is a near masterpiece of presentation. So far, I think it infinitely superior to this color film in almost every respect.

    • Well, I somehow managed to sit through the remainder of this production and I find myself in agreement with the solitary reviewer at Amazon.com who gave it a mere one star. I think this one of the least engaging and poorly directed opera films that I have ever seen. Karajan was adept at many things, but he was certainly no director. He has absolutely no visual sense. As you note, the camera lingers interminably on the back of heads and other unflattering shots of the cast. There is little to no fluidity in the camera movement, the shots are all static, though on occasion the camera does move about somewhat clumsily. Whereas the 1958 production was blessed with some real technical craftsmen, there contributors to this fiasco don’t appear to have put much thought or effort into the work. The sets grow really tiresome when shown repeatedly from the same static angles and some of Karajan’s choice of shots are quite strange (e.g. Iago sings about death and the camera closes in on some very green and vibrant-looking leaves floating in a fountain that is gurgling with life. The fountain itself and its incessant gurgling is present throughout all of Act II, which is most annoying). Things liven up a bit in the third act, but not by much. Vickers seems to throw himself more into the role here and yet he still lacks the requisite intensity to be at all credible. Act IV is spoiled by some truly inept filmmaking and unimaginative photography. Under the circumstances, Freni does her best but there was really little she could do compensate for the pedestrian direction, sets and lighting.

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