Otello, Opera by G. Verdi
In the late 1870s, only Giuseppe Verdi’s love of Shakespeare could bring him back out of his informal retirement. His publisher Giulio Ricordi knew that all too well when he approached the Maestro with the proposal to bring the Bard’s Othello to the stage of La Scala in Milan. The fruit of Verdi’s labours, the fantastic and engaging opera Otello, will play on the stage of Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice this season.
The tragic story of the jealous Moor Othello who ultimately murders his blameless wife Desdemona thanks to evil Iago’s machinations presented a challenge to Verdi. Although with Aida (1871), his major pre-retirement success, he was already at his creative peak, having mastered opera’s musical and dramatic devices long before, the Maestro would often doubt his capacity to transform Shakespeare’s marvellous original into an opera that would be worthy.
Still, thanks to Ricordi’s reassurance and the dedicated teamwork of composer and librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi completed Otello in 1886. The long creative process had definitely paid off. To this day, Otello shines with its complex, urgent, evocative orchestration and choral work which grab the listener from the very first note. The title character Otello stands out as Verdi’s darkest, heaviest dramatic tenor role. It remains one of the best examples of musical characterisation in the composer’s extensive catalogue.
Iago, the manipulator, is a constant presence that maintains the opera’s suspense and moves the plot forward. While it lacks extended soli, the role is a fantastic opportunity for a theatrically adept baritone to shine. Desdemona, the victim of Otello’s unwarranted jealousy, is musically modest as she is dramatically meek and innocent – another example of Verdi’s mastery of character-building through music.
Otello also features one of Verdi’s rare uses of an almost-Wagnerian Leitmotiv – the ‘kiss motif’ that binds the whole opera together and symbolises love, betrayal, regret and death in each of the plot’s various turning points.
The opera was first performed on 5 February 1887 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The popular and critical response was overwhelmingly positive, and it established Otello as one of the high points of Verdi’s career. The work would be the Maestro’s second-last big production and his final dramatic opera.