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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Otello (Verdi)

(English title: Othello)
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi

Opera in four acts, by Verdi. Words by Arrigo Boito, after Shakespeare. Produced, La Scala, Milan, February 5, 1887, with Tamagno (otello), and Maurel (Iago). London, Lyceum Theatre, July 5, 1889. New York, Academy of Music, under management of Italo Campanini, April 16, 1888, with Marconi, Tetrazzini, Gallasi, and Scalchi. (Later in the engagement Marconi, was succeeded by Campanini); Metropolitan Opera House, 1894, with Tamagno, Albani, Maurel; 1902, Alvarez, Eames, and Scotti; later with Slezak, Alda, and Scotti; Manhattan Opera House, with Zenatello, Melba, and Sammarco.


OTHELLO, a Moor, general in the army of Venice…………. Tenor
IAGO, ancient to Othello…………………………………….. Baritone
CASSIO, lieutenant to Othello………………………………. Tenor
RODERIGO, a Venetian…………………………………….. Tenor
LODOVICO, Venetian ambassador………………………… Bass
MONTANO, Othello’s predecessor in the government of Cyprus………………………………..……..…….. Bass
A HERALD………………………………………………….…….. Bass
DESDEMONA, wife of Otello………………………………..… Soprano
EMILIA, wife of Iago………………………………..……..…….. Mezzo-Soprano
Soldiers and sailors of the republic of Venice, men, women, and children of Venice and of Cyprus; heralds; soldiers of Greece, Dalmatia, and Albania; innkeeper and servants.

Time: End of fifteenth century.
Place: A port of the island of Cyprus.

Three years after the success of "Aida," Verdi produced at Milan his "Manzoni Requiem"; but nearly sixteen years were to elapse between "Aida" and his next work for the lyric stage. "Aida," with its far richer instrumentation than that of any earlier work by Verdi, yet is in form an opera. "Otello" more nearly approaches a music-drama, but still is far from being one. It is only when Verdi is compared with his earlier self that he appears Wagnerian. Compared with Wagner, he remains characteristically Italian -- true to himself, in fact, as genius should be.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this matter summed up as happily as in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians: "Undoubtedly influenced by his contemporaries Meyerbeer, Gounod, and Wagner in his treatment of the orchestra, Verdi’s dramatic style nevertheless shows a natural and individual development, and has remained essentially Italian as an orchestral accompaniment of vocal melody; but his later instrumentation is far more careful in detail and luxuriant than that of the earlier Italian school, and his melody more passionate and poignant in expression."

"Otello" is a well-balanced score, composed to a libretto by a distinguished poet and musician -- the composer of "Mefistofele." It has vocal melodies, which are rounded off and constitute separate "numbers" (to employ an expression commonly applied to operatic airs), and its recitatives are set to a well thought out instrumental accompaniment.

It is difficult to explain the comparative lack of success with the public of Verid’s last two scores for the lyric stage, "Otello" and "Falstaff." Musicians fully appreciate them. Indeed "Falstaff," which followed "Otello," is considered one of the greatest achievements in the history of opera. Yet it is rarely given, and even "Otello" has already reached the "revival" stage, while "Aida," "Rigoletto," "La Traviata," and "Il Trovatore" are fixtures, although "Rigoletto" was composed thirty-six years before "Otello" and forty-two before "Falstaff." Can it be that critics (including myself) and professional musicians have been admiring the finished workmanship of Verdi’s last two scores, while the public has discovered in them a halting inspiration, a too frequent substitution of miraculous skill for the old-time flair, and a lack of that careless but attractive occasional laissez faire aller of genius, which no technical perfection can replace? Time alone can answer.

When "Otello" opens, Desdemona has preceded her husband to Cyprus and is living in the castle overlooking the port. There are a few bars of introduction.

Act I. In the background a quay and the sea; a tavern with an arbour; it is evening.

Through a heavy storm Othello’s ship is seen to be making port. Among the crowd of watchers, who exclaim upon the danger to the vessel, are Iago and Roderigo. Othello ascends the steps to the quay, is acclaimed by the crowd, and proceeds to the castle followed by Cassio, Montano, and soldiers. The people start a wood fire and gather about it dancing and singing.

It transpires in talk between Iago and Roderigo that Iago hates Othello because he has advanced Cassio over him, and that Roderigo is in love with Desdemona.

The fire dies out, the storm has ceased. Cassio has returned from the castle. Now comes the scene in which Iago purposely makes him drunk, in order to cause his undoing. They, with others, are grouped around the table outside the tavern. Iago sings his drinking song, "Inaffia l’ugola! trinca tra canna" (Then let me quaff the noble wine, from the can I’ll drink it).

Under the influence of the liquor Cassio resents the taunts of Roderigo, instigated by Iago. Montano tries to quiet him. Cassio draws. There follows the fight in which Montano is wounded. The tumult, swelled by alarums and the ringing of bells, brings Othello with Desdemona to the scene. Cassio is dismissed from the Moor’s service. Iago has scored his first triumph.

The people disperse. Quiet settles upon the scene. Othello and Desdemona are alone. The act closes with their love duet, which Desdemona begins with "Quando narravi" (When thou dids’t speak).

Act II
. A hall on the ground floor of the castle. Iago, planning to make Othello jealous of Desdemona, counsels Cassio to induce the Moor’s wife to plead for his reinstatement. Cassio goes into a large garden at the back. Iago sings his famous "Credo in un Dio che m’ha creato" (I believe in a God, who has created me in his image). This is justly regarded as a masterpiece of invective. It does not appear in Shakespeare, so that the lines are as original with Boito as the music is with Verdi. Trumpets, employed in what may be termed a declamatory manner, are conspicuous in the accompaniment.

Iago, seeing Othello approach, leans against a column and looks fixedly in the direction of Desdemona and Cassio, exclaiming, as Othello enters, "I like not that!" As in the corresponding scene in the play, this leads up to the questioning of him by Othello and to Iago’s crafty answers, which not only apply the match to, but also fan the flame of Othello’s jealousy, as he watches his wife with Cassio.

Children, women, and Cypriot and Albanian sailors now are seen with Desdemona. They bring her flowers and other gifts. Accompanying themselves on the cornemuse, and small harps, they sing a mandolinata, "Dove guardi spendono" (Whereso’er thy glances fall). This is followed by a graceful chorus for the sailors, who bring shells and corals.

The scene and Desdemona’s beauty deeply move the Moor. He cannot believe her other than innocent. But, unwittingly, she plays into Iago’s hand. For her first words on joining Othello are a plea for Cassio. All the Moor’s jealousy is re-aroused. When she would apply her handkerchief to his heated brow, he tears it from her hand, and throw it to the ground. Emilia picks it up, but Iago takes it from her. The scene is brought to a close by a quartet for Desdemona, Othello, Iago, and Emilia.

Othello and Iago are left together again. Othello voices the grief that shakes his whole being, in what Mr. Upton happily describes as "a pathetic but stirring melody." In it he bids farewell, not only to love and trust, but to the glories of war and battle. The trumpet is effectively employed in the accompaniment to this outburst of grief, which begins, "Addio sante memorie" (Farewell, O sacred memories).

To such a fury is the Moor aroused that he seizes Iago, hurls him to the ground, and threaten to kill him should his accusations against Desdemona prove false. There is a dramatic duet in which Iago pledges his aid to Othello in proving beyond doubt the falseness of Desdemona.

Act III. The great hall of the castle. At the back a terrace. After a brief scene in which the approach of a galley with the Venetian ambassadors is announced, Desdemona enters. Wholly unaware of the cause of Othello’s strange actions toward her, she again begins to plead for Cassio’s restoration to favour. Iago has pretended to Othello that Desdemona’s handkerchief (of which he surreptitiously possessed himself) had been given by her to Cassio, and this has still further fanned the flame of the Moor’s jealousy. The scene, for Othello, is one of mingled wrath and irony. Upon her knees Desdemona vows her constancy: "Esterrefatta fisso lo squardo tuo tremendo" (Upon my knees before thee, beneath thy glance I tremble). I quote the phrase, "Io prego il cielo per te con questo pianto" (I pray my sighs rise to heaven with prayer).

Othello pushes her out of the room. He soliloquizes: "Dio! mi poteir scagliar tutti i mali della miseria" (Heav’n had it pleased thee to try me with affliction).

Iago, entering, bids Othello conceal himself; then brings in Cassio, who mentions Desdemona to Iago, and also is led by Iago into light comments on other matters, all of which Othello, but half hearing them from his place of concealment, construes as referring to his wife. Iago also plays the trick with the handkerchief, which, having been conveyed by him to Cassio, he now induces the latter (within sight of Othello) to draw from his doublet. There is a trio for Othello (still in concealment), Iago, and Cassio.

The last-named having gone, and the Moor having asked for poison with which to kill Desdemona, Iago counsels that Othello strangle her in bed that night, while he goes forth and slays Cassio. For this counsel Othello makes Iago his lieutenant.

The Venetian ambassadors arrive. There follows the scene in which the recall of Othello to Venice and the appointment of Cassio as Governor of Cyprus are announced. This is the scene in which, also, the Moor strikes down Desdemona in the presence of the ambassadors, and she begs for mercy -- "A terra -- si -- nel livido" (Yea, prostrate here, I lie in the dust); and "Quel sol sereno e vivido che allieta il cielo e il mare" (The sun who from his cloudless sky illumes the heavens and sea).

After this there is a dramatic sextet.

All leave, save the Moor and his newly created lieutenant. Overcome by rage, Othello falls in a swoon. The people, believing that the Moor, upon his return to Venice, is to receive new honours from the republic, shout from outside, "Hail, Othello! Hail to the lion of Venice!"

"There lies the lion!" is Iago’s comment of malignant triumph and contempt, as the curtain falls.

Act IV. The scene is Desdemona’s bedchamber. There is an orchestral introduction of much beauty. Then, as in the play, with which I am supposing the reader to be at least fairly familiar, comes the brief dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia. Desdemona sings the pathetic little willow song, said to be a genuine Italian folk tune handed down through many centuries.

Emilia goes, and Desdemona at her prie-Dieu, before the image of the Virgin, intones an exquisite "Ave Maria," beginning and ending in pathetic monotone, with an appealing melody between.

Othello’s entrance is accompanied by a powerful passage on the double basses.

Then follows the scene of the strangling, through which are heard mournfully reminiscent strains of the love duet that ended the first act. Emilia discloses Iago’s perfidy. Othello kills himself.

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Renaissance Music
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Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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