Otello, Opera by G. Verdi
When the opportunity to turn William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello into an opera came in 1879, Giuseppe Verdi had not written an opera for eight years and was, for all intents and purposes, retired. Thankfully, the Maestro’s love for the Bard quickly took over him and inspired him to produce yet another operatic masterpiece, Otello, which people will be able to admire this season at the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice.
After the smashing success of 1871’s Aida, Verdi’s publisher Giulio Ricordi approached the composer with the proposal to bring the Shakespearean tragedy Othello to the opera stage. The poet and composer Arrigo Boito was already attached to the project and ultimately supplied the libretto. Driven by his lifelong admiration of Shakespeare, Verdi ultimately agreed.
The birth of the opera Otello, however, was not smooth and easy. Boito and Ricordi found themselves continuously encouraging and prodding Verdi into completing the score, while the Maestro often doubted his facility to do the original drama justice. By 1886 the music was completed, and Otello had its premiere on 5 February 1887 at Milan’s La Scala. The response from critics and the general public was resounding admiration.
In Otello, Verdi displays his complete mastery of opera’s dramatic and emotional devices. The orchestration is among the Maestro’s most complex and remains intricately married to the onstage action to deliver a closely knit musical and theatrical performance. In the eyes of many, Otello demonstrated Verdi’s creative and dramatic zenith.
Otello, the title character, remains one of the fiercest, harshest roles the Maestro ever wrote. We only get to see his gentler side in his love duet with Desdemona; in all other instances, he is as hard and heavy as a stone, and the role pushes every dramatic tenor to the brink of his ability and stamina. Desdemona, on the other hand, ranks among Verdi’s meekest heroines, though that does not deprive her of memorable melodies.
Iago’s role as the master manipulator and unofficial narrator received such expansion that Boito and Verdi considered naming the opera Iago instead of Otello. Although he does not get extended solo spots, the baritone in the role gets ample opportunity to show his dramatic chops and to drive the plot to its ultimate tragic end. An operatic dramatisation that would make the Bard proud!