Otello (Italian pronunciation: [oˈtɛllo]) 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 5 February 1887.
With the composer's reluctance to write anything new after the success of Aida in 1871 and his retreat into retirement, it took his Milan publisher Giulio Ricordi the next ten years, first to persuade him to write anything, then to encourage the revision of Verdi's 1857 Simon Boccanegra by introducing Boito as librettist, and finally to begin the arduous process of persuading and cajoling Verdi to see Boito's completed libretto for Otello in July/August 1881. By that time no music had yet been written, and the composer did not guarantee that any would be written.
- 1 Composition history
- 2 Performance history
- 3 Roles
- 4 Synopsis
- 5 Ballet
- 6 Critical evaluation of the opera
- 7 Instrumentation
- 8 Recordings
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Giulio Ricordi and the plot to convince Verdi to compose again
Verdi's early retirement
After the completion and premiere of his opera Aida in December 1871, Verdi decided that it was time for him to end his successful career as a composer of opera, much as Rossini had done after the completion of the opera William Tell, though he was easily the most popular, and possibly the wealthiest, composer in Italy at the time. However, Verdi's sixties were not good years: as musicologist Julian Budden notes, "he seemed to have entered [those years] in a mood of gloom and depression [..and..] his letters at the time were full of complaints about the Italian theatre, Italian politics and Italian music in general [all] seen by him as sinking beneath a tide of Germanism".
Ricordi's initial attempts
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.
During the period when a suitable story was being sought for what became Aida, Ricordi had come across Boito's partly finished libretto of his own opera Nerone, and he even suggested in a letter of February 1870 to Verdi that, with Boito's permission, he set it to music. Verdi ignored it, and so Ricordi tried again in January 1871, enclosing with his letter a copy of Boito's libretto for Boito's friend and collaborator Franco Faccio's Amleto which had been given in 1865 and was revived in February 1871. Nothing came of this approach, although Ricordi persevered in various ways, as seen by the composer's gruff response to the publisher's statement "The whole salvation of the theatre and the art is in your hands" when Verdi wrote in April 1875 that "I cannot take it as but a joke", continuing with "Oh no, never fear, composers for the theatre will never be lacking".
Verdi's refusals continued as the 1870s progressed. Knowing of his interest in the soprano Adelina Patti, Ricordi tried to entice him into writing an opera for her, but Verdi's refusal resulted in another approach via a letter to Giuseppina, who was to present the idea at an opportune time. But she confessed defeat yet again. Clara Maffei also tried, unsuccessfully, in March 1878 to interest Verdi, who replied: "For what reason should I write? What would I succeed in doing?"
Boito, Verdi, and revisions of Simon Boccanegra
While he was attempting to get Verdi involved a new opera, in May 1879 Ricordi also tried to engage the composer in revising Simon Boccanegra. This suggestion, originally expressed ten years before but ignored, was once again shrugged off by Verdi, who sent a note saying that the 1857 score, which had been sent to the composer for review, would remain untouched "just as you sent it to me".
Persisting with further attempts to convince the composer, Ricordi had also broached the idea of a collaboration with Boito for a new opera based on Shakespeare's Othello. Verdi admired the dramatic works of Shakespeare and had, throughout his career, desired to create operas based on his plays, although his one attempt at doing so, Macbeth in 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.
Collaborations with Boito in the revision of the 1857 opera Simon Boccanegra helped to convince Verdi of Boito's ability as a librettist. Musicologist Roger Parker speculates that Verdi's final agreement to revise Boccanegra was based on a desire to "test the possibility" of working with Boito before possibly embarking on the larger project. Frank Walker expresses much the same thoughts, noting that "some of the results, such as the magnificent scene in the Council Chamber and the villainous Paolo's Iago-like recitatives, foreshadow the later opera."
Verdi is introduced to the idea of Otello
Verdi visited Milan on 30 June 1879, where he was present to conduct his Requiem Mass in a benefit performance at La Scala. He received the great acclaim of the public, which included the La Scala orchestra playing outside his hotel. Walker assumes that it was both Ricordi and Faccio who stage managed the effects to give the composer the sense of being welcome and respected in Milan.
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). Ricordi told the story to Giuseppe Adami, a librettist for three of Puccini's operas:
- The idea of a new opera arose during a dinner among friends, when I turned the conversation, by chance, on Shakespeare and on Boito. At the mention of Othello I saw Verdi fix his eyes on me, with suspicion, but with interest. He had certainly understood; he had certainly reacted. I believed the time was ripe.
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, Ricordi approached Verdi with the request that he would like to visit Sant' Agata "with a friend" in September. Verdi's reaction was clearly non-committal: "I wish absolutely to avoid committing myself..[...] The best thing..is for him to send me the finished poem".
Meanwhile, Boito began work on the libretto in spite of illness and, by late October/early November had sent a copy of the work so far. After appealing to Giuseppina, Ricordi was told that the Verdis would be coming to Milan and that he would meet privately with Boito. However, she noted in her letter of 7 November: "Between ourselves, what Boito has so far written of the African seems to please him, and is very well done."
At this point the opera was being referred to as Iago rather than Otello, due to the tradition—"an unwritten law of the theatre"—that any new opera would have a new title rather than that of one still in the repertoire, in this case by Rossini.
From libretto, to composition, to first performance: 1879 to 1887
The process of writing the first drafts of the libretto and the years of their revision, with Verdi all along not promising anything, dragged on. As Walker charts it, the opera was completed:
- in three comparatively short bouts of composition: the first, very brief, was at Genoa in March 1884 [five years after the first drafts of the libretto began!]; the second, the principal one, at Genoa from December 1884 to April 1885; the third at Sant' Agata from the middle of September to early October 1885.
By late August 1881, it appears that the text of the finale of act 3, over which there had been some considerable discussion (with ideas exchanged between both men) was sent to Verdi, who responded in a long letter from Milan regarding his feelings about its overall structure, the role of the chorus, and other issues. Throughout 1882 and 1883 very little happened, although during the winter of 1883 Verdi and Boito met in Genoa where the Verdis spent their winters, but it prompted Ricordi for three Christmases in a row to send a cake to Verdi with the figure of the Moor—in chocolate—on the top. In order to keep information about the composition within the group, this gesture may have been the cause for the name given to the project for many years, "chocolate", as in Boito's letter of 1864 noting that "the manufacture of chocolate was going ahead".
March 1884: composition begins
But, early the following year, Verdi began to compose and on 20 March 1884, in a letter from Boito to Ricordi, the librettist announced that Verdi had begun with the "opening of first act and seems to be working with fervor".
There then occurred an event which unsettled both Verdi and Boito, and which nearly caused the project to come to a complete stop. While attending a banquet in Naples following the successful presentation of his opera Mefistofele, Boito gave an interview to a journalist and, in trying to keep information about the proposed Otello as quiet as possible, appears to have been misquoted by another journalist who overheard part of the conversation. The key point was that Boito, himself a composer, appeared to want to compose the music for Otello himself. When Verdi read this in a Milan newspaper, he was horrified and, in a letter to Faccio (rather than directly confronting Boito) stated that he wanted Faccio to directly tell the librettist that "I will give him his manuscript intact, without a shadow of resentment, without rancor of any kind".
When he heard of the newspaper report, Boito was horrified. Writing immediately to Verdi, he states:
- The theme and my libretto are yours by right of conquest. You alone can set Othello to music—all the dramatic creations you have given us proclaim the truth.
- [He continues by discussing his own preoccupation with Emperor Nero and his love for the period of Ancient Roman history as works on his own opera, Nerone]
- [...] no other subject in the world can distract me, not even Shakespeare's Othello, could distract me from my theme.
- [He asks the composer, given the above comments, whether he really believes that he would accept his offer. Boito begs Verdi to not to abandon Otello:] It is predestined for you. Create it. You had begun work upon it [so..] take up you pen again and write me soon: 'Dear Boito, do me the favour of altering these verses, etc. etc.....' 
Verdi's response, which came right away was quite blunt: in addition to complaining of his age, his years of service, and raising other objections, he states: "The conclusion is that all this has cast a chill over this Otello, and stiffened the hand that had begun to trace out a few bars!", but, in total contrast, Boito appears to have simply decided to carry on. Albeit "somewhat disquieted", he immediately proposes "a sort of evil Credo [which] I did... for my own comfort and personal satisfaction, because I felt the need of doing it". On 3 May, Verdi writes back, calming this down: "Most beautiful this Credo; most powerful and wholly Shakespearian....[...] it would be well to leave this Otello in peace for a bit....[and encouraging Boito to come to Sant'Agata where] "we shall be able to talk it over again, and by then with the necessary calm". Boito did visit Verdi in September for three days.
December 1884: composition begins again
"It seems impossible, but it's true all the same! I'm busy, writing!!....without purpose, without worries, without thinking of what will happen next.....". So Verdi wrote to Boito, with a request for a few more lines for act two, to which the librettist immediately responded: "One can't escape one's destiny, and by a law of intellectual affinity that tragedy of Shakespeare's is predestined for you".
Verdi's second burst of creative energy lasted until mid-April 1885, and was followed by the usual summer break and a lack of any activity. He confesses to Boito in a letter of 10 September of that year, when he invites him to come to Sant'Agata the following Sunday, stating "since I've been here [from the end of April] (I blush to say it) I've done nothing!" It was during this time that the fourth act was pulled together.
From October 1885: composition re-commences, and moves towards completion
Walker speculates that Boito's visit and his conversations with the composer must have had some effect on Verdi because, on 5 October, Verdi made the announcement: "I have finished the fourth act, and I breathe again".
Scoring took another year which, from January 1886 onward, involved the librettist in re-writes and additions at Verdi’s request. It was at this time that it was decided to call the opera Otello rather than Iago (as noted above). Verdi's letter to Boito in January settles the matter: "I would find it hypocritical not to call it Otello. Emanuele Muzio (Verdi's long-time assistant) tells Ricordi in March that the love duet in act 1 was finished and performed.
In May, Verdi "hit upon the precise form of one of the most famous entrances in all opera"—Otello's "Esultate"—in act 1. Boito modified his verses accordingly. Other minor changes and proposed revisions were wrapped up into September so that Verdi could write to Ricordi on 9 September: "Tomorrow I shall send to Casa Ricordi, completely finished, all the first act and all scene vi of the third; and thus with the fourth, already sent, perhaps three-fifths of the Moor are ready".
But on 1 November 1886, in a laconic communication, Verdi was able to proclaim: "DEAR BOITO, It is finished! All honour to us! (and to Him!!). Farewell. G. VERDI".(sic) This left only a few minor tweaks to be done, with Boito providing two more lines in December and Verdi writing to him on the 18th saying "I have just consigned to [Ricordi] the last acts of Otello! Poor Othello!...He won’t come back here any more!!!" The librettist replied: "The Moor will come back no more to knock on the door of the Palazzo Doria [Verdi’s Genoa residence], but you will go to meet the Moor at La Scala. Otello exists. The great dream has become reality".
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 soprano 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."
Today, the opera is frequently performed throughout the world, a staple of the standard repertoire. The online performance database, operabase, records that in the 2012/13 season, this opera appears as number 25 of the top 50 given worldwide. This compares to being number 28 of 50 in the 2009/10 season.
The roles, their demands, and the singers who met them
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, Francesc 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 I Otello in his native country. His compatriot Arnold Azrikan achieved his greatest recognition as a dramatic tenor in Otello. For this performance he was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946. 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 several times on CD and appeared in numerous stage productions of the work on both sides of the Atlantic. In his book My First Forty Years, Domingo has written about different approaches over the years towards singing the role of Otello:
- 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 which the composer makes it quite clear that Tamagno left a great deal to be desired.(Verdi expressed reservations about Tamagno's softer singing, not about the power and ring of his vocalism in dramatic passages of the score.)
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.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 5 February 1887
(Conductor: Franco Faccio)
|Otello, a Moorish general||tenor||Francesco Tamagno|
|Desdemona, his wife||soprano||Romilda Pantaleoni|
|Iago, Otello's ensign||baritone||Victor Maurel|
|Emilia, wife of Iago and maid of Desdemona||mezzo-soprano||Ginevra Petrovich|
|Cassio, Otello's captain||tenor||Giovanni Paroli|
|Roderigo, a gentleman of Venice||tenor||Vincenzo Fornari|
|Lodovico, ambassador of the Venetian Republic||bass||Francesco Navarini|
|Montano, former Governor of Cyprus||bass||Napoleone Limonta|
|A herald||bass||Angelo Lagomarsino|
|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 evening, the people of Cyprus anxiously await the arrival of the new governor, Otello, from a naval battle with the Turks (Chorus, Montano, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo: Una vela! / "A sail!"). For a moment it seems as if Otello's ship will founder, to the delight of Otello's treacherous ensign, Iago, but 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").
Iago offers to help the young Venetian gentleman Roderigo in his seduction of Otello's wife Desdemona – Iago envies Otello his success and longs to destroy the Moor (Iago, Roderigo: Roderigo, ebben che pensi? / "Well, Roderigo, what are you thinking?"). Among his grievances, Iago is outraged that Otello has appointed Cassio to be the captain of the navy, a position that Iago hoped to have. The people of Cyprus celebrate the safe return of Otello and his men by lighting a bonfire and drinking (Chorus: Fuoco di gioia!/ "Fire of joy").
Iago proposes a toast to Otello and his wife, while Cassio praises Desdemona (Iago, Cassio, Chorus, Roderigo: Roderigo, beviam! / "Roderigo, let's drink!"). Iago offers Cassio more wine, but Cassio says he has had enough. Iago pressures him and 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; he is surprised to find Cassio drunk and barely able to stand upright. Iago lies to Montano, telling him that this is how Cassio spends every evening. Roderigo laughs at Cassio's drunkenness and Cassio attacks him. Montano tells Cassio to calm down, 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. Montano is wounded and the fight is stopped only by the appearance of Otello.
Otello orders Montano and Cassio 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 is 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".) He tells Iago to patrol the town to restore quiet, calls for help for Montano and orders everyone to return to their houses.
The Cypriots leave Otello alone with Desdemona. Together Otello and Desdemona recall why they fell in love. Otello, in an ecstasy of joy, invites death, fearing that he will never know such happiness again. Desdemona prays that their love will remain unchanged. They kiss, overcome with love for each other. (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 to Cassio that he should ask Desdemona to talk to Otello about his demotion; 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 and hatred of humankind (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, but Iago gives only vague answers. Finally, he hints that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Otello begins to get suspicious, but declares that he needs proof before believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful. (Iago, Otello: Ciò m’accora... Che parli? / "That worries me..." "What did you say?") Iago warns Otello against jealousy, but also advises him to be vigilant.
A crowd of children, sailors, and Cypriots sing to 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; as she persists, he grows impatient and says he has a headache. Desdemona offers to wrap 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.
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Otello dismisses the others, and declares 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. Otello swears vengeance on Desdemona and Cassio, and Iago joins him in his vow (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.
A herald brings news of the approach of ambassadors from Venice. 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 his headache has returned, and asks Desdemona 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, Lodovico. Iago warns Cassio that he should leave unless he wants to see Otello. Cassio exits, and Otello asks Iago how he should kill his wife. Iago advises Otello to kill Desdemona by suffocating her in her bed, while he will take care of Cassio. Otello promotes Iago to Captain.
Lodovico, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, and other dignitaries enter. When Lodovico notes Cassio's absence, Iago tells him that Cassio is out of favor. Desdemona interrupts, telling Lodovico that she hopes he will soon be restored. 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..."). The various characters express their feelings: Emilia and Lodovico express their sympathy for Desdemona, Cassio marvels at his sudden change of fortune, and Roderigo laments that Desdemona will soon depart. In separate asides, Iago urges Otello to take his revenge as soon as possible, while he will take care of Cassio. He advises Roderigo that the only way to prevent Desdemona from leaving is for Cassio, the new Duke, to die, and suggests that Roderigo 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"). In a fury, Otello orders everyone to leave. Desdemona goes to comfort him, but Lodovico pulls her away as Otello curses her. As the others leave, 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 is preparing for bed with the assistance of Emilia. She 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's servant Barbara was abandoned by her lover, and how she used to sing the Willow Song (Desdemona: Piangea cantando nell’erma landa / "Singing, she wept on the lonely hearth"). 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; she must die, and he does not wish to condemn 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 to testify to her innocence. Otello says that Cassio is already dead. Desdemona, horrified, pleads for mercy, but Otello tells her it's too late and strangles her (Otello, Desdemona: Diceste questa sera le vostre preci / "Have you said your prayers tonight?").
Francesco Tamagno, the original Otello, sings "Niun mi tema" (Morte d'Otello). This 1903 recording dates from just two years before Tamagno's death.
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Emilia knocks at the door, announcing that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona softly calls out that she has been unjustly accused, but refuses to blame Otello. She 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 stole the handkerchief from her—Cassio confirms that the handkerchief appeared mysteriously in his lodgings. Montano enters and says that Roderigo, with his dying breath, has revealed Iago's plot. 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".)
In 1894, Verdi composed a short ballet for a French production of Otello, which takes place during the third act that precedes the entrance of Lodovico. It is rarely performed as part of the opera.
Critical evaluation of the opera
In Otello, Verdi 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, for example the portrayal of the depth of the evil of Iago. Some of the orchestral writing shows the influence of Wagner in its extended harmonies, chromaticism and changes of key within passages. Some of the softer passages, especially, are reminiscent of the sad, soft music of the first part of Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
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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 pizzicato 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 an 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 act's 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 ("È 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 distress 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 "vil cortigiana" 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 an 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)
- Walker 1982, p. 486
- Budden 1984, Vol. 3, p. 295
- Budden 1984, pp. 298–299
- Verdi to Ricordi, April 1875, in Walker 1982, pp. 469–470
- Walker 1982, p. 471
- Verdi to Clara Maffei, 19 March 1878, in Budden 1984, Vol. 3, p. 299
- Verdi to Ricordi, 2 May 1879, in Budden 1984, Vol. 2, p. 255
- Parker 1998, p. 111
- Parker 1998, p. 382
- Walker, p. 484
- Walker 1982, p. 473
- Giuseppe Adami, Giulio Ricordi e I soi musicisti, Milan, 1933, p. 64, in Walker 1982, p. 473
- Verdi to Ricordi, in Walker, pp. 474–475
- Giuseppina Strepponi to Ricordi, 7 November 1879, in Walker 1982, p. 476
- Budden, Vol. 3, p. 319
- Walker 1982, p. 493
- Verdi to Boito, date?, in Walker p. 486—487: Walker notes that there were no more letters concerning act 3 and assumes that the issues were resolved
- Budden, Vol. 3, pp. 314—315
- Budden, Vol. 3, p. 315
- in Walker, p. 488
- Verdi to Faccio, date?, in Walker, p. 489
- Boito to Verdi, date?, in Walker, pp. 489—490
- Verdi to Boito, 26 April 1884, in Walker, p. 490
- Boito to Verdi, date unknown, in Walker, 490
- Verdi to Boito, 3 May 1884, in Walker, pp. 490—491
- Verdi to Boito, 9 December 1884, in Budden, Vol. 3, 318
- Boito to Verdi, (undated) December 1884, in Walker, p. 491
- Verdi to Boito, 10 September 1885, in Walker, p. 491
- Verdi to Boito, 5 October 1885, in Walker p. 493
- Verdi to Boito, 21 January 1886, in Budden, Vol. 3, p. 319
- Budden Vol 3, p. 320
- Verdi to Ricordi, 9 September 1886, in Walker p. 493
- Verdi to Boito, in Budden, Vol. 3, p. 322. There is a note that "Him" refers to Shakespeare
- Verdi to Boito, 1 November 1886, in Walker, p. 493
- Boito to Verdi, 21 December 1886, in Budden, Vol 3, p. 322
- Kimbell, in Holden p. 1000
- 2012/13 season performances
- 2009/10 season performances
- See Otello discography
- Domingo, p. 127
- List of singers taken from Budden, p. 322
- Budden p. 322
- Synopsis description from Melitz 1921
- Budden, Julian (1984), The Operas of Verdi, Volume 3: From Don Carlos to Falstaff. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-30740-8
- Domingo, Plácido (1993), My First Forty Years, Littlehampton Book Services. ISBN 978-0-297-78291-9
- Hepokoski, James (1987), Giuseppe Verdi: Otello, Cambridge Opera Handbooks
- Kimbell, David (2001), in Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001 ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Melitz, Leo (1921), The Opera Goer's Complete Guide, 1921 version
- Osborne, Charles (1969), The Complete Opera of Verdi, New York: Da Capo Press, Inc. ISBN 0-306-80072-1
- Parker, Roger (1998), "Otello" in Sadie, Stanley (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. Three. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-522186-2
- Walker, Frank, The Man Verdi (1962 & 1982), New York: Knopf, 1962, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. ISBN 0-226-87132-0
- Conati, Marcello; Mario Medici (eds.) (Trans. William Weaver) (1994), The Verdi-Boito Correspondence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-85304-7
- De Van, Gilles (trans. Gilda Roberts) (1998), Verdi’s Theater: Creating Drama Through Music. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-14369-4 (hardback), ISBN 0-226-14370-8
- Gossett, Philip (2006), Divas and Scholar: Performing Italian Opera, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-30482-5
- Martin, George, Verdi: His Music, Life and Times (1983), New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. ISBN 0-396-08196-7
- Parker, Roger (2007), The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-531314-7
- Pistone, Danièle (1995), Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera: From Rossini to Puccini, Portland, OR: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-82-9
- Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane (1993), Verdi: A Biography, London & New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-313204-4
- Toye, Francis (1931), Giuseppe Verdi: His Life and Works, New York: Knopf
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera New York: OUP: 1992 ISBN 0-19-869164-5
- Werfel, Franz and Stefan, Paul (1973), Verdi: The Man and His Letters, New York, Vienna House. ISBN 0-8443-0088-8
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Otello.|
- List of performances of Otello by Verdi on Operabase.
- Verdi: "The story" and "History" on giuseppeverdi.it (in English)
- Otello: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Libretto (in Italian)
- Libretto (in Italian and English translation)
- Vocal Score with English Translation
- .ogg Recording - 1947 - Toscanini - NBC and Libretto