His proclamation – Esultate! – is in itself a fanfare. With it the victor – and the singer portraying him – hurls down his credentials for the evening ahead. The Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner was unable to summon what it takes truly to "arrive" with this his opening gambit. Any Otello who fails to thrill here is unlikely to thrill later. Heppner was immediately in trouble, failing to attempt at all the grazed top B which gives such a lift to the preceding bars.
Heppner seems to be experiencing all kinds of problems in the passaggio, the crucial break into the upper quadrant of his voice. Crossing that break is clearly precarious for him and his reluctance and/or inability to deploy head-voice in higher, quieter phrases made him sound stressed in the rapt conclusion of the love duet and the final scene. He was at his best here, though, just about able to use the emotion to cover the voice giving way in his dying moments. But there was no disguising the charisma vacuum at the heart of the evening.
The absence of Renée Fleming meant that his Desdemona was a late replacement. Amanda Roocroft sang it with truthfulness and intensity. But this will not have been the first or the last occasion when the Iago walked off with the evening. Lucio Gallo is Italian which helps in making the words really tell. He used them like tiny electric charges into the cortex of Otello's brain. The voice, blade-like, was wielded with great assurance and subtlety. The chasm of silence he opened up when asking himself and us what we can expect after death was chilling, the response nulla (nothing) still more so.
Elijah Moshinsky's 1987 staging in Timothy O'Brien's gaunt and imposing sets still looks handsome and has been well revived by Bill Bankes-Jones clearly responsive to Pappano's febrile impulses. All that was missing was the only man ever to fill all its requirements: Placido Domingo. Heppner, alas, was but a shadow of that presence.
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