Verdi Otello, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/ Davis, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The real “Lion of Venice” here was Sir Colin Davis – 80-something going on 40-something and every inch the commander in chief as the mighty storm at the outset of Verdi’s Otello exploded from the Barbican platform.

Davis had just been awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music 2009 but despite half the audience rising to its feet on his entrance Davis’ only priority was to harness his London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and brave out that storm. It was, to use the maestro’s own parlance, a terrific racket, the chorus’s words as incisive as the piccolo-flecked lightening strafing the horizon, the orchestra sinewy and emphatic, brass blazing in a way that is rarely experienced from the pit of an opera house. Lots of wonderful orchestral detail would be forthcoming.

The triumphant Moor then made his entrance – an eleventh hour replacement: Torsten Kerl was ill and New Zealander Simon O’Neill strode forward to deliver his celebrated vocal fanfare. So far, so very good – O’Neill has a real trumpet-toned top to his voice and like all true warriors he is fearless. And because so many famous exponents of the role – including Domingo – are firmly in the more baritonal heldentenor mould it was refreshing, no thrilling, to hear a young singer really nail those crazed top notes. His martial outburst in act two had splendid rigour. For sure O’Neill lacked the middle-voice heft and shrouded darkness for the harrowing third act monologue but he was not found wanting in any other respect, indeed his sensitive and expressive way with text truly brought a lump to the throat in the great final scene.

I’m afraid, though, the object of all his agony – the Desdemona of Anne Schwanewilms – was far from ideal casting. We’ve heard great things from this German soprano but the Italian style completely eluded her. Why her reluctance to use the enticement of portamento? It might well have helped her find the natural shape of the phrasings. As it was the voice was neither true enough in intonation (disturbingly off-pitch at times) nor fluid enough of line to do justice to Desdemona’s exquisite music.

Gerald Finley’s sonorous and charismatic Iago was more gracious, more mellifluous, with the musical line, his deceits positively slipping off the tongue, his “covered” ingratiations veiling the evil intent. A tremendous performance, a whiff of theatricality in every line.

And so it was, too, with the whole of the resourcefully cast ensemble. Collectively they gave us a tremendous account of the great third act climax, public and private sound and fury colliding with a force that still resonates.