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Giuseppe Verdi

‘Otello’, London 1955

1955. Royal Opera House, London
Ramón Vinay, one of the world's greatest Otellos, headed the cast in Kubelík's opening production as Music Director of the Covent Garden Opera, with Gré Brouwenstijn and Otakar Kraus
Composer Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor Rafael Kubelík
Singers Gré Brouwenstijn, Otakar Kraus, Ramón Vinay
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera

Otello from Covent Garden 1955

Rafael Kubelík was a surprise choice to succeed Covent Garden Opera’s first
Musical Director Karl Rankl, and his name only emerged after an interregnum
and much soul-searching. The 40-year-old conductor, self-exiled from his
native Czechoslovakia after the communist takeover in 1948, was known as a
symphonic rather than an operatic specialist, though he had conducted
Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni at the 1948 Edinburgh Festival and Katya
Kabanova for Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1954. His debut at Covent Garden was
with another Czech opera, The Bartered Bride, but his opening production as
Musical Director was the Company’s first Otello on 17 October 1955.
Much rode on that evening. Italian opera had been the weak suit of the Rankl
period, while memories remained fresh of the Otello during La Scala’s 1950
visit. Covent Garden’s policy at that time was to perform in English, but Otello
was to be sung in Italian with an international cast, including the leading Otello
and Iago of the day.

The Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay had studied and recorded Otello with
Toscanini and on stage in the legendary production at La Scala Milan
conducted by Victor de Sabata. By autumn 1955, he had performed the role
230 times, and some of the ‘blade’ evident in his 1940s recordings had been
supplanted by a more burnished tone. He had started his career, and was to
finish it, as a baritone. As a tenor, he was a Bayreuth stalwart as Siegmund
(magnificent under Clemens Kraus in 1953), Tannhäuser (superb with Joseph
Keilberth in 1954) and Parsifal. On this recording as Otello, every phrase is
minutely coloured yet invested with spontaneous tension. On stage, he could
be mesmerisingly still, but gave the impression of a volcano waiting to erupt.
Covent Garden has been fortunate to witness the leading Otellos of the second
half of the 20 th century, among them Mario del Monaco, James McCracken, Jon
Vickers and Plácido Domingo, but none of these great singers, in my
experience, inhabited this role so completely as my early memory of Ramón
Vinay when I attended the revival in 1957.

Iago was to have been Tito Gobbi, but his failure to arrive by his already
adjusted deadline led to his replacement by the Company baritone Otakar
Kraus, who was being urgently prepared in his stead by staff conductor Edward
Downes, preparatory to taking over the role later in the run. Kubelík, who
prized ensemble ahead of stars, and General Administrator David Webster
risked alienating the public eagerly expecting Gobbi in the interests of
presenting a rehearsed ensemble. Kraus at first resisted his promotion and
might have been even more nervous if he had realised that Gobbi was in the
first-night audience, but he gave a well-rounded and subtly nuanced
characterisation, as well as demonstrating rapport with Vinay.
The Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn, who had played Elisabeth to Vinay’s
Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, employed her ample voice and careful attention to
detail to create a sympathetic Desdemona. I recall especially her leading the
big concertato finale of Act 3, but this recording also shows her exquisite soft
singing in her Act 4 Willow Song and Ave Maria.

Kubelík’s Otello proved that Covent Garden Opera Company could compete
with the leading international opera houses in presenting idiomatic Verdi, and
paved the way for the historic 5-act Don Carlos conducted by Carlo Maria
Giulini in the theatre’s centenary year of 1958. Years later, Lord Harewood,
from whose collection this recording derives, told me that the three seasons
working with Rafael Kubelík were the most rewarding experience of his
lifetime working in opera.

Nicholas Payne
2014, revised 2024

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)


Track 1: Act 1

Track 2: Act 2

Track 3: Act 3

Track 4: Act 4


The recording is taken from the BBC relay of the performance given on October 19 1955.

The recording is from the Harewood Collection at Music Preserved.

Re-mastering by Paul Baily.

  • Ramón Vinay
  • Gré Brouwenstijn
  • Otakar Kraus
  • John Lanigan
  • Noreen Berry
  • Raymond Nilsson
  • Marian Nowakowski
  • Michael Langdon
  • Forbes Robinson
  • The Covent Garden Orchestra
  • The Covent Garden Chorus
  • Rafael Kubelík

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