When it comes to casting the title role of OTELLO there is a long history of missteps and compromises. There’s also the discussion that takes place with the arrival of a new candidate for the killer role of the Moor, with each generation musing on the past glories of the Otello of their youth: Domingo and before him Vickers and before him Del Monaco and before him Vinay and then those of the eras of which our parents and grandparents spoke in awed tones.

As comparisons can often turn odious let us not succumb to comparing the principals of the excellent new SONY release of Verdi’s next to last opera with those of recent memory, as memory almost always turns to be erratic. Let us instead evaluate these formidable singers on their own merits and not by comparing theirs to those of others.

The mere fact of operatic life is that tenors for the role of Otello don’t grow on trees, so that we have to accept whatever we get. And what we get from Jonas Kaufmann – at the age of 51 a dramatic tenor at the top of his game – is an artist of uncommon sensitivity with the vocal equipment to surmount the perils of a score chockfull of them.

Act II is off to a fine start thanks to Carlos Alvarez’ superb Iago: chillingly venomous, vocally secure, intelligently handling Boito’s text. By the time we get to Otello’s Ora e per sempre Kaufman walks through a vocal mine field that he traverses unscathed. Alvarez always injecting subtlety as in Era la notte saves his vocal arsenal to match Kaufmann decibel by decibel in a stunning Si pel ciel.

The young Italian soprano Federica Lombardi is a marvelous Desdemona, possessing a crystalline voice ideal for the role of the guiltless young wife. Her contribution to the final scene and to the earlier duet with Otello and the Council scene ranks her as a major artist to watch.

The supporting cast is very good, with both mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez a fine Emilia and tenor Liparit Avetysian a better than good Cassio as standouts.

Always supple and at the ready to hold things together while supporting the singers, Antonio Pappano is the ideal Verdi interpreter, summoning fire and brimstone from his Santa Cecilia forces when needed and at other times eliciting delicate, shimmering playing never better than with Desdemona’s music.

The SONY release ranks for this listener as one for our BEST OF 2020 lineup.

Rafael de Acha