The title role in Verdis penultimate opera Otello is hard to cast these days, so when the scheduled tenor Torsten Kerl fell ill, there cant have been that many options available to the LSO.
Full marks then for whoever managed to secure the services of Simon ONeill at the eleventh hour as his performance of the title role was a triumph.
And considering that he has never sung the role, the Everest of the Italian repertoire, in public before makes his achievement all the more remarkable.
Its a brave company that decides to put on a performance of Otello without a single native Italian-speaker in any of the major roles the scheduled tenor, Torsten Kerl, like the Desdemona was German, while the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley was making his role debut as Iago. True, Finley sang with his usual musicianship, but by no stretch of the imagination is he a Verdi baritone his voice simply lacks the requisite muscle for heavy roles like this at the moment, and he was sorely stretched in some of the key passages. Similarly soprano Anne Schwanewilms gave a mostly wordless account of the role of Desdemona portamento was lacking, some high notes simply didnt speak properly within the voice and whilst she has few rivals in the Straussian and lighter Wagner roles, the pathos and phrasing that a role like Desdemona demands is beyond what her voice is capable of.
Quite what the performance would have been like with Kerl in the title role is obviously open to conjecture, but we were lucky to have a reading of such heroic stature as ONeill delivered. His voice is not particularly beautiful or distinctive but by goodness he certainly knows how to give a performance. From his no-holds barred entrance, through to the sublime love duet which closes the first act, his voice was superbly controlled and where many more famous exponents of the role often resort to crooning, falsetto and other tricks to hide their vocal failings, ONeill hit every note squarely, and his phrasing was faultless. He was tireless and still had plenty of mezza voce left for a quite heart-rending death scene. Watching him grow into the role over the next few years is a mouth-watering prospect as currently I cant think of an Otello to touch him.
Presiding over the performance was the LSOs President, Sir Colin Davis. He last conducted this work in 1999 with the LSO, and before that his final staged performances were at the Royal Opera in 1983. Reviewing the Royal Opera performance in OPERA magazine, the late William Mann said: The performance as a whole failed to take wing, try though Davis persistently did to achieve lift-off. The musical rehearsals, judging from instances of imprecise ensemble alone, may have been inadequate… Over 25 years later Davis certainly led an explosive performance with the LSO although he conducted like a man in a hurry. I dont think Ive ever heard this score taken at such a lick, and as such problems arose.
The Act One love duet sounded hassled, it required more time to breathe while the childrens chorus in the second act (here performed by the ladies of the LSO Chorus) was hurried so much by Davis, that the whole performance threatened to derail. True there were thrilling moments there can be few more exciting openings to any opera, and the singing of the chorus was lusty throughout, especially in Act Three, but to my ears at least this was a rather mundane account of one of Verdis most ravishing scores. Most of the smaller roles were cast from strength, with Allan Clayton a particularly vivid and Italianate Cassio.