Otello is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare's play Othello. It was Verdi's penultimate opera, and was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on February 5, 1887.
Verdi's early retirement
After the completion and premiere of the opera Aida in 1871, Verdi decided that it was time for him to end his successful career as a composer of opera, though he was easily the most popular, and possibly the wealthiest, composer in Italy during the time, much as Rossini had done after the completion of the opera William Tell.
Ricordi and the plot to end Verdi's retirement
Because of the immense popularity of Verdi’s music in Italy by the 1870s, Verdi’s retirement seemed to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to be a waste of talent and possible profits. Thus a plot of sorts was hatched in order to coax the composer out of retirement to write another opera. Because of the importance of the dramatic aspects of opera to the composer, Verdi was especially selective in his choice of subjects. Consequently, if he were to agree to create another opera after a decade of retirement, the libretto would need to be one that would capture his interest. It was generally known that Verdi admired the dramatic works of Shakespeare and had, throughout his career, desired to create operas based on Shakespearian plays. However, his one attempt at doing so, Macbeth (1847), although initially successful, was not well received when revised for performance in Paris in 1865. Because of its relatively straightforward story, the play Othello was selected as a likely target.
Proposal and Arrigo Boito
Finally, after some plotting, Ricordi, in conjunction with Verdi’s friend, the conductor Franco Faccio, subtly introduced the idea of a new opera to Verdi. During a dinner at Verdi’s Milan residence during the summer of 1879, Ricordi and Faccio guided the conversation towards Shakespeare’s play Othello and to the librettist Arrigo Boito (whom Ricordi claimed to be a great fan of the play also). Suggestions were made, despite initial skepticism on the part of the composer, that Boito would be interested in creating a new libretto based upon the play. Within several days, Boito was brought to meet Verdi and present him with an outline of a libretto for an opera based on Othello. However, Verdi, still maintaining that his career had ended with the composition of Aida, made very little progress on the work. Nonetheless, collaborations with Boito in the revision of the earlier opera Simon Boccanegra helped to convince Verdi of Boito’s ability as a librettist. Finally, production began on the opera, which Verdi initially referred to as Iago.
Completion and production
As the Italian public became aware that the retired Verdi was composing another opera, rumors about it abounded. At the same time, many of the most illustrious conductors, singers and opera-house managers in Europe were vying for an opportunity to play a part in Otello 's premiere, despite the fact that Faccio and La Scala, Milan, had already been selected as the conductor and the venue for the first performance. The two male protagonists had been selected, too: Italy's foremost dramatic tenor, Francesco Tamagno, was to sing Otello while the esteemed French singing-actor Victor Maurel would assume the villainous baritone role of Iago. Romilda Pantaleoni, a well known singing-actress, was assigned Desdemona's part.
Upon the completion of the opera, preparations for the initial performance were conducted in absolute secrecy and Verdi reserved the right to cancel the premiere up to the last minute. Verdi need not have worried: Otello's debut proved to be a resounding success. The audience's enthusiasm for Verdi was shown by the 20 curtain calls that he took at the end of the opera. Further stagings of Otello soon followed at leading theatres throughout Europe and America.
The opera was first seen in the US at the Academy of Music in New York on 16 April 1888 and in the UK on 5 July 1889 in London. When it was given in Paris in October 1894, "Verdi composed a short ballet (which) forms part of the ceremony of welcome for the Venetian ambassadors in the Act 3 finale.
Since three leading roles of the opera (Desdemona, Iago and Otello) are among Verdi's most demanding, both vocally and dramatically, some of the most illustrious singers of the past 130 years have made Otello part of their repertoire. Famous Otellos of the past have included Tamagno, the role's trumpet-voiced creator, as well as Giovanni De Negri, Albert Alvarez, Francisco Viñas, Giuseppe Borgatti, Antonio Paoli, Giovanni Zenatello, Renato Zanelli, Giovanni Martinelli, Aureliano Pertile, Francesco Merli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Frank Mullings, Leo Slezak, Jose Luccioni, Ramón Vinay, Mario del Monaco, James McCracken, Jon Vickers and Carlo Cossutta. Pre-Second World War Wagnerian tenors such as Jacques Urlus, Heinrich Knote, Alexander Kirchner, Lauritz Melchior and Franz Völker also undertook the part (usually singing it in German). The Russian heroic tenor Ivan Yershov was a renowned pre-World War One Otello in his native country.
Enrico Caruso was studying Otello when he died unexpectedly in 1921, thus thwarting the New York Metropolitan Opera company's plans to stage the opera as a new vehicle for its star tenor. Currently, Plácido Domingo has appeared in more video productions of the opera than any other tenor. Also, he has recorded the complete role twice on CD.
Domingo wrote about performing in the opera in his book My First Forty Years:
As to the other question — that of singing roles that, according to self-proclaimed experts, we ought not to be singing — I have a little story to tell. When I decided to sing Otello, many people told me that I was crazy. Mario Del Monaco, they said, had had the proper kind of voice for the role, and my voice was nothing like his. Twenty years earlier, Del Monaco had been warned not to sing Otello because his voice was nothing like that of Ramon Vinay, who was then performing the opera all over the world. Vinay, of course, had heard that only a tenor with a piercing sound like Giovanni Martinelli's ought to sing the part. Some years earlier, Martinelli had had Antonin Trantoul, who had sung Otello at La Scala in the twenties, held up to him as a shining example; but at La Scala, those who still remembered the very first Otello, Francesco Tamagno, had found Trantoul completely unsatisfactory. But there exists a letter from Verdi to his publisher in the composer in which the composer makes it quite clear that Tamagno left a great deal to be desired.
A long lineage of renowned baritones have sung Iago since 1887. Among them: Victor Maurel (the role's first exponent), Mattia Battistini, Mario Ancona, Antonio Scotti, Titta Ruffo, Pasquale Amato, Carlo Galeffi and Lawrence Tibbett. Leading post-war exponents of the part have included Giuseppe Valdengo, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Tito Gobbi, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris. As for Desdemona, too many top-class lyric sopranos to list here have undertaken the role since 1887.
||Premiere Cast, 5 February 1887
(Conductor: Franco Faccio)
|Otello, a Moorish general
|Desdemona, his wife
|Iago, Otello's ensign
|Emilia, wife of Iago and maid of Desdemona
|Cassio, Otello's captain
|Roderigo, a gentleman of Venice
|Lodovico, ambassador of the Venetian Republic
|Montano, former Governor of Cyprus
|Chorus: Venetian soldiers and sailors; and Cypriot townsfolk and children
- Time: The late 1400s.
- Place: A coastal city on the island of Cyprus.
In front of the castle, next to the harbor.
On a stormy night, the people of Cyprus anxiously await the arrival of the new governor, Otello, from the battle with the Turks (Chorus, Montano, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo: Una vela! / "A sail!"). Otello arrives safely and announces that the Turkish fleet has been destroyed, and the Cypriots cheer (Otello, chorus: Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar / "Rejoice! The Mussulman's pride is buried in the sea").
Otello's ensign, Iago, offers to help the young Venetian gentleman Roderigo in his seduction of Otello's wife Desdemona, because he (Iago) wants revenge against the Moor (Iago, Roderigo: Roderigo, ebben che pensi? / "Well, Roderigo, what are you thinking?"). Otello has appointed Cassio to be the captain of the navy, a position that Iago hoped to have. The people of Cyprus celebrate the navy's safe return by lighting a bonfire (Chorus: Fuoco di gioia! / "Fire of joy").
In the tavern, Iago proposes a toast to Otello and his wife, while Cassio fulsomely praises Desdemona (Iago, Cassio, Chorus, Roderigo: Roderigo, beviam! / "Roderigo, let's drink!"). Iago offers Cassio wine, but Cassio says he has had enough. Iago pressures him, and when Iago offers a toast to Otello and Desdemona, Cassio gives in. Iago sings a drinking song and continues to pour Cassio wine (Iago, Cassio, Roderigo, chorus: Inaffia l'ugola! / "Wet your throat").
Montano enters and calls for Cassio to begin his watch, but he is surprised to find Cassio drunk and barely able to stand upright. To Montano's surprise, Iago explains that this is how Cassio spends every evening. Roderigo laughs at Cassio's drunkenness and Cassio attacks him. Montano tells Cassio to refrain, but Cassio draws his sword and threatens to crack open Montano's head. (Montano, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo, chorus: Capitano, v’attende la fazione ai baluardi / "Captain, the guard awaits you on the ramparts".) Cassio and Montano begin to duel, and Iago sends Roderigo to call the alarm. Cassio wounds Montano as Otello enters.
Otello orders them to lower their swords. He then asks "honest Iago" to explain how the duel began, but Iago says he doesn't know. Otello then turns to Cassio, who feels embarrassed and cannot excuse his actions. When Otello discovers that Montano is wounded, he becomes enraged. Desdemona enters, and, upon seeing that his bride's rest has been disturbed, Otello declares that Cassio is no longer Captain. (Otello, Iago, Cassio, Montano: Abbasso le spade / "Down with your swords".)
The Cypriots leave Otello alone with Desdemona. Together Otello and Desdemona recall why they fell in love. They kiss and then walk back to the castle. (Otello, Desdemona: Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor / "Now in the dark night all noise is silenced".)
Inside the castle, a chamber next to the garden.
Iago suggests Cassio should ask Desdemona to talk to Otello about his demotion, because Desdemona can influence her husband to reinstate him (Iago, Cassio: Non ti crucciar / "Do not fret"). Desdemona and Emilia can be seen walking the garden, Cassio approaches Desdemona. Watching from the room, Iago voices his nihilistic beliefs in a well-known credo (Credo in un Dio crudel / "I believe in a cruel God").
Otello enters the room; Iago, pretending not to notice him, says that he is deeply troubled. Cassio sees Otello from afar and goes discreetly away. Otello asks what's wrong with Iago, and he responds by giving vague answers. Finally he hints that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Otello feels himself becoming jealous, but he wants proof of Desdemona's betrayal first. (Iago, Otello: Ciò m’accora... Che parli? / "That worries me..." "What did you say?")
A crowd of children, sailors, and Cypriots encircles Desdemona, praising her beauty and purity (Chorus, Iago, children, Desdemona, Otello: Dove guardi splendono raggi / "Wherever you look, brightness shines..."). They present her with gifts and wish her happiness before leaving.
Desdemona carries Cassio's request for reinstatement to Otello. Otello sourly tells her to ask him another time, and says he has a headache. Desdemona wraps his head in a handkerchief Otello once gave her, linen embroidered with strawberries. Otello throws it to the ground and says he doesn't need it (Desdemona, Otello: D'un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno la preghiera ti porto / "I bring a petition from one who suffers under your displeasure"). Emilia picks up the handkerchief. Desdemona asks for Otello's forgiveness. Aside, Iago demands that Emilia give him the handkerchief. When she refuses, Iago forcibly takes it from her.
Otello dismisses the others, and sings that he now believes that Desdemona may be deceiving him (Otello: Ora e per sempre addio sante memorie / "Now and forever farewell, holy memories"). Iago returns, and the jealous Otello demands proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Iago says that once, when he and Cassio were sleeping in the same room, he heard Cassio talking to Desdemona in a dream. In the dream, says Iago, Cassio told Desdemona that they must be careful to conceal their love. (Iago: Era la notte, Cassio dormia / "It was night, Cassio was sleeping".) Iago says that dreams don't prove anything, but remarks that he saw Cassio carrying Desdemona's strawberry-embroidered handkerchief just the day before. Together, Otello and Iago swear vengeance on Desdemona (Otello, Iago: Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro / "Yes, by the marble heavens I swear").
The great hall of the castle. A small hall next to the great hall.
Iago explains to Otello that he will lure Cassio here and talk with him while Otello watches, hidden. He leaves to go get Cassio. (Iago: Qui trarrò Cassio / "Here I will bring Cassio".)
Desdemona enters and reminds Otello of Cassio's request. Otello says that he still has a headache, and asks her to wrap her handkerchief around his head. When Desdemona produces a different handkerchief, Otello demands the one with strawberries. When she says she does not have it, Otello says that it was a talisman, and troubles will befall her if she loses it. Desdemona says that he is trying to ignore Cassio's plea, and as she asks him about Cassio, he demands the handkerchief ever more insistently. (Desdemona, Otello: Dio ti giocondi, o sposo / "God keep you merry, husband".) Desdemona protests that she is faithful; Otello sends her away (Desdemona, Otello: Esterrefatta fisso lo sguardo tuo tremendo / "Terrified, I face your dreadful look").
Otello laments his fate (Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali / "God, you could have thrown every evil at me" ). When Iago calls out "Cassio is here!" Otello hides as Iago and Cassio enter. Cassio says he had hoped to see Desdemona here, for he wanted to know whether she had been successful with Otello (Iago, Cassio, Otello: Vieni; l’aula è deserta / "Come, the hall is deserted"). Iago asks him to tell of his adventures with that woman. Cassio asks which woman, and, softly, so that Otello cannot hear, Iago says "Bianca" (the name of Cassio's actual lover). As Cassio laughs about his romantic adventures, Otello assumes he is speaking of Desdemona. In a conversation only partially heard, Cassio seems to be telling Iago that another woman, a secret admirer, left him a handkerchief as a token. At Iago's urging, Cassio produces it, whereupon Iago seizes it—for it is Desdemona's—and holds it out where he knows Otello can see it. He then returns it to Cassio and teases him, while in his hiding place Otello fumes (Iago, Cassio, Otello: Questa è una ragna dove il tuo cuor casca / "This is a spiderweb in which your heart is caught").
Bugles sound, announcing the arrival of the Venetian ambassador. Iago warns Cassio that he should leave unless he wants to see Otello. Cassio exits, and Otello determines to kill his wife by suffocating her in her bed, while Iago will take care of Cassio.
Lodovico, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, and other dignitaries enter. When Lodovico notes Cassio's absence, Iago tells him that Cassio is out of favor, but Desdemona adds that he will soon be restored. Iago explains to the puzzled Lodovico that perhaps Cassio's restoration is her wish. Desdemona says that it is, for she has quite an affection for him. Otello calls her a demon and almost strikes her violently but is held back by Lodovico. Otello then calls for Cassio. (Lodovico, Otello, Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, chorus: Il Doge ed il Senato salutano l'eroe trionfatore / "The Doge and the Senate greet the triumphant hero".) Cassio enters and Otello reads (mixing in insults to Desdemona) a letter from the Doge, announcing that he (Otello) has been called back to Venice and Cassio is to succeed him as governor of Cyprus. Enraged, Otello throws Desdemona to the ground. (Otello, Roderigo, Iago, Cassio, Lodovico: Messeri! il Doge mi richiama a Venezia / "Gentlemen! The Doge recalls me to Venice".)
Desdemona, on the ground, laments (A terra! … sì … nel livido fango / "Fallen! yes, in the foul mud..."). In full ensemble, the various characters express their different feelings: Emilia and Lodovico comfort Desdemona, Cassio marvels at his sudden change of fortune, and Roderigo laments that Desdemona will soon depart. In separate asides, Iago first tells Otello that tonight is the night to take revenge and then advises Roderigo that the only way to prevent Desdemona from leaving is for the new Duke to die, giving him encouragement to murder Cassio that night. (Emilia, Cassio, Desdemona, Roderigo, Lodovico, Iago, Otello, chorus: Quell’innocente un fremito d'odio non ha nè un gesto / "That innocent one is without feeling or gesture of hatred"). Otello orders everyone to leave. Desdemona goes to comfort him, but Lodovico pulls her away as Otello curses her. Otello raves about the handkerchief, then collapses. Iago presses Otello's forehead with his heel, then walks away. Outside the crowd of Cypriots calls out victory and glory for Otello. (Otello, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, Roderigo, Lodovico, Iago, chorus: Fuggite! / "Begone".)
Desdemona's chamber. A lit lamp in front of an image of the Virgin Mary.
Desdemona and Emilia are preparing for bed. Desdemona asks Emilia to put out the bridal gown she used on her wedding day, and says that if she dies, she wants to be buried in it. Emilia tells her not to talk about such things. Desdemona recalls how her mother had a servant named Barbara, who fell in love with a man but went mad when he left her (Desdemona: Piangea cantando nell’erma landa / "Singing, she wept on the lonely hearth", also known as the Willow Song). After Emilia leaves, Desdemona prays (Ave Maria) and then falls asleep.
Silently, Otello enters, with a sword. He kisses his wife three times; she awakens. Otello asks her if she has prayed tonight, because he does not want to kill her soul. She asks God for mercy, both for her and for Otello. Otello accuses her of sin, saying that he must kill her because she loves Cassio. Desdemona denies it and asks that he summon Cassio on her behalf. Otello says that Cassio is already dead. Desdemona pleads for mercy, but Otello tells her it's too late for that and strangles her (Otello, Desdemona: Diceste questa sera le vostre preci / "Have you said your prayers tonight?").
Emilia knocks at the door, announcing that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona softly calls out that she has been unjustly accused, and then dies. Emilia calls Otello a murderer; he retorts that Iago gave him proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Otello begins to threaten Emilia, who calls for help. Iago, Cassio, and Lodovico enter. Emilia demands that Iago deny Otello's accusation; he refuses. Otello says that the handkerchief Desdemona gave to Cassio is proof enough. Emilia, horrified, explains that Iago had stolen the handkerchief; Cassio corroborates her story. Montano enters and says that Roderigo, with his dying breath, has revealed Iago's plan. Iago, brandishing his sword, runs away. (Emilia, Otello, Desdemona, Cassio, Iago, Lodovico, Montano: Aprite! Aprite! / "Open up!")
After he realizes what has happened, Otello grieves over Desdemona's death. He then draws a dagger from his robe and stabs himself. Others try to stop him, but it is too late. Before he dies, he drags himself next to his wife and kisses her. He lies dead next to Desdemona. (Otello, Cassio, Lodovico, Montano: Niun mi tema / "That none fear me".)
Critical evaluation of the opera
Most commentators and musicologists consider Otello to be Verdi's greatest, most mature opera. In it, he tried to do away with the traditional recitative-aria structure of opera, much as Richard Wagner had done, except that in some cases, the distinction between recitative and aria is more clearcut in Otello than in any of Wagner's operas. Nonetheless, the flow between the set pieces is much smoother than in any of Verdi's earlier works. Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, was extremely faithful to Shakespeare's original play, though Act 1 of the drama (everything having to do with Brabantio, Desdemona's father) was omitted and the other scenes were condensed in length. The roles of Otello (Othello) and Iago are among the most fully developed in all of opera, as much so as in Shakespeare's original drama—especially the character of Otello himself. (Iago is much more a standard villain in the opera than in the play). Verdi's orchestral writing in Otello is more highly developed than in any of Verdi's previous masterpieces. Whereas the orchestra served as little more than an accompaniment to the singing in his earlier works, in Otello, the orchestra plays a major part in conveying the events of the opera. It is used to portray the depth of the evil of Iago (an evil possibly only rivaled by that of Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca).
The storm which dominates the opening chorus is portrayed vividly by the orchestra. Rapidly changing sixteenth notes played by the lower strings and woodwinds create an image of a turbulent sea while rising and descending scales in the upper woodwinds represent the unpredictable patterns of the wind in the tempest. Frequent interjections from the brass and percussion portray the bolts of lightning and thunder which accompany the storm. Otello's first entrance is marked by brass instruments for a sense of grandeur. Verdi adds to the anxiety by having the organ hold its three lowest notes in a cluster (C-C#-D) through the entire scene. At the end, the woodwinds gradually calm down to portray the fading of the storm, and finally the release of the low organ discord completes the feeling of relief. When the chorus sings of their joy, the high woodwinds now portray the sparkling, cheerful flames
In the drinking song that follows, Verdi makes use of the bassoons and other low instruments in order to represent the internal effects of alcohol upon Cassio. However, this is gradually eclipsed by the merry themes which follow in the orchestra and chorus ("Chi all'esca ha morso"). The merriment of the celebrations suddenly become frantic, as Cassio challenges Montano to a duel. The full orchestra builds up to a climax as they fight whilst Iago orders Roderigo to go and alert the entire town until the ordeal is interrupted by a loud statement made by the entering Otello.
Accented notes in the orchestra, particularly in the strings, reflect the annoyance of Otello at having his sleep disturbed. Notes played piano and pizzacato by the strings accompany Iago's account of the events, giving his account a feeling of false remorse and unhappiness. Upon Otello's orders, the disturbed islanders return to their homes, accompanied by legato notes in the upper strings and woodwinds depicting the calm that has once more been reestablished.
The great love duet which ends the act commences with a statement from Otello accompanied by cellos playing pianissimo. Desdemona's reply to him is accompanied by the violins and violas, providing a contrast to the statements made by Otello previously. When the duet proper starts ("Quando narravi"), sixteenth notes played by the harp and quarter notes played by the horns and bassoons give the music a sense of motion as Desdemona describes the narrations that Otello had given her about his life. As Otello commences to speak about how he narrated the battles in which he fought, thirty-second notes in the strings in addition to the inclusion of the lower brass instruments reflect the violent topics of Otello's previous narration. However, upon Desdemona's next vocal entrance several bars later, this immense energy is translated to a overall sense of the passion of the two lover's love for each other through the use of some of the more expressive wind instruments such as the English Horn. The duet continues to build up in passion until its climax, the appearance of the "kiss" theme which reappears twice more in the Opera near the end. After this, the music begins to tone down until the act ends with a trill in two of the first violins and a plucked chord on the harp.
The act commences with a series of dark threatening statements from the bassoons and cellos followed by repeats of these in the clarinets and violas. Quickly, a theme forms that appears to reflect the calm that has remained in the castle after the brawl the night before. However, this tone is only superficial; repeated descending chromatic scales in the strings during the brief orchestral prelude create a darker atmosphere associated with the plotting of Iago.
Iago's brief conversation with Cassio is marked by the theme from the acts introduction, making Iago appear strangely affable when he suggests that Cassio consult Desdemona; however, as before, an underlying dark tone remains.
Upon Cassio's exit, this dark tone rapidly becomes predominant as the gestures which opened the act repeat, but this time, will a full string and woodwind section. The famous aria that follows ("Credo in un Dio crudel") is marked by trills in the lowest clarinet register and quick yet powerfully accented notes played by the full orchestra at several intervals that portray the evil of Iago to its fullest extent.
Nevertheless, Iago's evil reverie is interrupted by the appearance of Desdemona and Cassio. The urgency felt by Iago in the situation is reflected in the staccato eight notes in the strings which accompany his witnessing of the situation. However, upon Otello's entry the music suddenly becomes much calmer. Otello's response to Iago's question about the preexisting relationship between Cassio and Desdemona is a typical love melody which would have been standard in an earlier Verdi opera, yet it lacks the passion that would typically accompany it and is cut short by Iago's interjection. Otello's annoyance with Iago for not directly stating his "suspicions" is suddenly reflected by an outburst in the orchestra. This is the second instance in the opera in which Otello's potential anger has been made apparent. As Iago gives the equivalent of the famous Shakespearean line from the play ("E un'idra fosca), the low strings and woodwinds create a dark tone during this scene.
This darkness, however is interrupted by the appearance of a chorus. The chorus is accompanied by folk instruments such as the mandolin and guitar in order to give the music a more authentic feel. However, the music is slow and intentionally sweet in quality, reflecting the kind innocence of Desdemona.
The quartet that follows the episode begins with a similarly sweet statement by Desdemona, asking for Otello to forgive her if she has done anything. This is overshadowed by the aside brooding of Otello about his perception of her guilt, which is marked by shorter, more separated phrases in the strings. Meanwhile, as Iago and Emilia join into the music with their quarrel, the music darkens until it is strangely sad towards the end, even when the orchestral accompaniment ends. After the end of the quartet proper, the music once again regains its sweet nature, as Desdemona's farewell statements are accompanied by the violins and oboe, however soon after her departure, it rapidly darkens, Otello broods to the incessant notes of the bassoons and lower violin statements. However, this is immediately transferred into an anger towards Iago which is reflected in the accented statements made by the full orchestra. Otello's distressed is reflected by his farewell to fame and glory ("Ora e per sempre addio"). Repeated lower chords on the harp along with triplet movement in the lower strings give the portion a dark tone, despite the majestic interludes of the brass and the melody (which would, on its own, be cheerful).
During Iago's untruthful account of Cassio's dream, strings and high woodwind instruments are used in order to create a dream-like atmosphere in the music. Descending chromatic scales both add to this atmosphere and maintain the dark overall tone which has pervaded.
The act ends with an energetic finale in which Iago and Otello swear to have vengeance. The energy of this final duet is provided by the full orchestra, which accompanies it.
The brief prelude to the third act uses the theme which had accompanied Iago's warning to Otello about jealousy in the second act. It begin with the lower strings, immediately creating the dark theme that will be present throughout the act, even if in a hidden subsurface manner. The prelude gradually builds up until its climax with the entire orchestra.
Desdemona's appearance in the act is once again accompanied by a sweet melody, however, this is quickly subdued as Otello, in his frustration, calls her a "vile cortegiana" at which point the anger of Otello is once again portrayed by a full orchestra with brass. The music that accompanies Desdemona's reaction to this sudden outburst is sad, yet the woodwinds give it a oddly noble character, which again reaffirms her overall innocence.
After Desdemona's departure, Iago stages an interrogation of Cassio in front of Otello. This interrogation takes the form of a friendly conversation and is accompanied by jocular sixteenth note runs in the woodwinds, reflecting the joy of Cassio about his love interest with the woman Bianca. This happily playful tone is contrasted with the dark asides of the watching Otello. Throughout this scene, the dark tone pervades.
The full scene that follows is grand in the orchestration, with abundant use of brass throughout. However, following Otello's angry outbursts near the end, it quickly becomes dark and sad after Otello strikes Desdemona.
After the departure of all of the members of the scene, the turmoil within Otello's mind is reflected by the restlessness of the orchestra, which becomes increasingly violent as he falls into his trance. The dark singing of the triumphant Iago is contrasted with the majestic brass and external choral interjections praising Otello.
The act begins with a brief prelude of woodwind instruments, particularly the English horn and oboe, which bring a sad and mourning atmosphere to the act, reflecting the sentiments which manifest themselves in Desdemona. All the while, clarinets playing in the lowest register on repeating chords create a sense of impending doom. The theme upon which this prelude is built is that of the later "Willow Song".
In the brief recitativo between Desdemona and Emilia which begins the act, the despairing tone begun in the introduction continues.
The "Willow Song" which follows is marked by an increasing orchestral sound, with woodwinds and strings adding to it, yet what compounds the sadness of the piece is the wail-like cries of "Salce" made by Desdemona followed by similarly despairing, yet softer "echoes" played by the English horn. Near the end of the song, Desdemona's fear, which has been hidden up to this point by a veil of sadness, is made apparent; she mistakes the noise of the wind for that of an intruder. The orchestra immediately builds to a fortissimo, reflecting the genuine worries possessed by Desdemona. The music that gradually lessens with the comforting of Emilia and returns for a final repetition of the theme of the "Willow Song".
Afterwards, Desdemona begins to bid Emilia adieu. This goodbye is initially accompanied by repeated notes on the lower woodwinds and strings such as those in the introduction of the act but in a much more noticeable and dominating manner. This reflects the increasing expectation of Desdemona of her death. Initially, she attempts to keep these feelings to herself, but the orchestra reveals her increasing inner thoughts. These feelings finally reach a point at which they can no longer be contained and Desdemona lets out a loud passionate cry of goodbye to Emilia, one that is reinforced by the full orchestral accompaniment.
Following Emilia's departure, Desdemona prays. Like many of Desdemona's earlier vocal appearances in the opera, these prayers contain a sweet nature, reflecting, for the final time, the innocence of the wrongly accused woman. The melody within the strings that appears later in the prayer scene adds significantly to the poignancy of the situation.
After she goes to bed, a sinister theme appears in the string bass, depicting Otello's entrance. This effectively replaces the sad tone which was present throughout the first portions with the dark one which marked much of the second and third acts. The low theme begins very slowly, but gradually accelerates until there is a sudden outburst with the full orchestra. However, soon afterwards, the music drops down to a soft tremolo in the strings. Above this, a theme that evokes Otello's longing for Desdemona appears in the English horn and bassoons. This theme builds up until it finally gives way to the "kiss" theme from Act 1, as Otello embraces the sleeping Desdemona. However this second appearance of the theme is even more passionate than the first one and adds to the poignancy of the tragedy.
Once Desdemona awakens, the music retreats to the theme that accompanied Otello's entrance, but with a more threatening feel this time as brass instruments are added. As Otello demands that Desdemona confess, the music accelerates, reaching a climax at the point where Desdemona is strangled. After this, though the power of the orchestra lessens, it maintains its darkness throughout the scene of Emilia's discovery of the murder and Desdemona's final death.
The scene with that follows is marked by a theme that is somewhat majestic and proud, however, as it is limited to the woodwinds, it seems weak. This reflects the loss of power and honor that have faced Otello.
As Otello laments his actions to the theme of his longing, he decides to commit suicide. Just before he dies, the orchestra plays the "kiss" motif one final time before the opera ends.
Otello is scored for the following instruments:
In the orchestra: 3 flutes (the third doubles as a piccolo), 2 oboes, 1 english horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 harp, percussion (timpani, cymbals, bass drum, gong), strings (violin I and II, viola, cello, double bass)
Offstage: 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, organ, bagpipes, mandolins, guitars
Otello has been recorded complete on disc and film a number of times since the Second World War; but most music-guide reviewers contend that a recording made of a 1947 radio broadcast of the opera, conducted with thrilling verve and precision by Arturo Toscanini and featuring such solid singers as Herva Nelli, Ramón Vinay and Giuseppe Valdengo, is musically (if not in terms of sound quality) the best of these versions. The Toscanini account has been released on commercial LPs and on CD in a digitally remastered form. In addition, exciting performances of Otello were captured live as early as the 1920s (at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London) and the 1930s (at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, the latter via the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts). They, too, are available on CD reissues. A wide variety of stage performances dating from the 1950s to the present day are also to be had on CD or on DVD.
Individual arias, duets and scenes from Otello have been committed to disc by many celebrated tenors, baritones and sopranos since acceptable audio technology was first developed in the early 20th century. The best of these recorded extracts have been reissued on CD and make for fascinating comparative listening.
Opera House and Orchestra
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: Preiser Records
NBC Symphony Orchestra and chorus
|Audio CD: Guild Historical
Audio CD: Naxos Historical
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: RCA Victor
||Mario del Monaco,
|Herbert von Karajan,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: Decca
Dame Gwyneth Jones,
New Philharmonia Orchestra
|Audio CD: EMI
|Herbert von Karajan,
Berlin Philharmonic and choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
|Audio CD: EMI
Cat: CMS 769 3082
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: Opera d'Oro
Cat: OPD 7005;
House of Opera
Cat: CDBB 802
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, choir of the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Boys' Choir
|Audio CD: Decca
National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: RCA
La Scala orchestra and chorus
(Otello, film directed by Franco Zeffirelli)
Cat: 0 27616 88420 6
Kiri Te Kanawa,
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: Decca (London)
Cat: 433 669-2
Kiri Te Kanawa,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra
|DVD: Kultur Video
Cat: 0 32031 14929 8
Opéra Bastille, Paris
|Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 439 805-2
Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
|DVD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 00440 073 0929
La Scala orchestra and chorus
Cat: 8 2412100019 6
Depictions in other media
- The play After Aida — a 1985 play-with-music by Julian Mitchell — depicts the struggle of Giulio Ricordi and Franco Faccio to get the retired Verdi to collaborate with the young librettist Boito on a new project, which became Otello. The play includes four full arias from Otello, plus arias from some of Verdi's previous works.
- ^ Sadie, Stanley (ed) (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, vol 3, page 111, article on Macbeth by Roger Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2.
- ^ Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001, page 1008. ISBN 0-140-29312-4
- ^ Domingo, Placido (1983). My First Forty Years. Littlehampton Book Services. p. 127. ISBN 978-0297782919.
- ^ List of singers taken from Budden, Julian: The Operas of Verdi (Cassell), vol 3, p. 294.
- ^ Budden p.322
- ^ The plot description is taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
- ^ Recordings on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
- Giuseppe Verdi: Otello by James Hepokoski, Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1987.