Program Notes: Otello

Program Notes: Otello

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Full program notes:

Giuseppe Verdi
Born: October 10, 1813, La Roncole, near Busseto, Italy
Died: January 27, 1901, Milan, Italy


With the successful premiere of his Aida in 1871, Giuseppe Verdi announced that “the account is settled,” and anticipated retirement. The composer who in the 1850s had given the world La Traviata, Il trovatore and Rigoletto—indeed the composer whose very name was synonymous with opera— believed that time had passed him by. Undeniably, many audiences were looking elsewhere, including to Germany, where Richard Wagner had ascended.

Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, wasn’t so sure. One night in 1877, over dinner in Milan, Ricordi delicately suggested to Verdi that he might attempt adapting Shakespeare’s Othello. Ricordi suggested as a librettist the composer Arrigo Boito, who was some 30 years Verdi’s junior. Boito was a modernist who had publicly, not to say vulgarly, criticized the great Verdi.

Verdi was excited by the notion—having long admired Shakespeare and adapted Macbeth much earlier in his career—and accepted Ricordi’s suggestion. For his part, Boito acknowledged his earlier lapse of judgment, and Verdi had all but forgiven him.

A decade elapsed between Verdi’s initial dinner meeting and the premiere of Otello, and the long wait paid off with an unqualified success. On the opening night of February 5, 1887, Milan was ecstatic. Numerous encores, 20 curtain calls and shouts of “Viva Verdi!” filled La Scala and later the Hotel Milano where Verdi was residing.

The heartrending tale of the Cyprian general Otello, who is turned murderously against his wife Desdemona by his manipulative ensign Iago, became in one commentator’s words “the crowning glory of Italian tragic opera.” The rapturous response led Verdi and Boito to reunite in 1893 for another Shakespearean opera, Falstaff.

Among the unique features of Otello is its musical structure: Verdi departed from his style of the 1850s and composed Otello as a sung-through opera. Gone were the traditional arias, duets and ensembles. Also remarkable is that Verdi and Boito knew their Shakespeare only in translation to Italian. That the works capture the Bard’s essence—a suggestion here, a double entendre there—is a feat attributable mostly to Boito’s brilliance.


the “missing” Shakespeare prologue. For the sake of brevity, Verdi’s Otello, comprising four acts, excises the entire opening act of Shakespeare’s five-act Othello. But the omitted material, which sets in motion the events of Verdi’s opera, is worthy of summary.

In Shakespeare’s opening act, Othello (“Otello” in the Italian translation), a Cyprian general of Moorish background, has promoted Cassio to be his captain, much to the envy of his ensign Iago. Meanwhile, a young Venetian named Roderigo has fallen in love with Desdemona, the daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. But word has spread that Desdemona has eloped with Otello.

Iago provokes a stir in front of Desdemona’s house. Roderigo, uttering racial slurs, announces to Desdemona’s father that Otello has married his daughter. Brabantio concludes that his daughter was a victim of Otello’s magic “charms” and “witch- craft.” Otello is summoned to the senate to defend himself against charges of sorcery. There he expresses his true love for Desdemona, who joins him before the senate. Otello, now cleared, is appointed to defend Venice against the attacking Turks.

act I. General Otello, victorious over Turkey, returns from battle, in a fierce storm that nearly consumes his ships. Verdi dramatically describes the storm: a crash of the cymbals, the piccolo, a wind machine and a sustained chord on the organ. They also presage the storm that Otello himself becomes. 

All but the embittered ensign Iago cheer Otello’s victory—over the Turks and over the storm—and Otello emerges exultant.

When the young Venetian Roderigo mourns his loss of Otello’s wife Desdemona, Iago responds: “I promise that the woman shall be yours. Listen, though I make show of loving him, I hate the Moor ... If I were the Moor, I would not want a Iago about me.”

Verdi ignites a joyous campfire, with sparks and flames throughout the orchestra.

In a drinking song, Iago circulates a cup of wine, which he urges Otello’s lieutenant Cassio, whom he knows cannot hold his alcohol, to consume. Verdi’s orchestra “pours” the wine, and, amidst the pizzicato strings, the evil, elongated trill in Iago’s “Beva! Beva!” (“Drink! Drink!”) reveals his evil.

A drunken brawl ensues, and Iago sends Roderigo to spread the word of revolt. Otello appears, stunned at what he sees. He asks “honesto Iago” the cause of this uproar. Iago answers with two disingenuous syllables: “No son,” denying knowledge of the cause.

When Desdemona appears, seeking to learn the cause of Otello’s absence from her, Otello becomes furious and on the spot demotes Cassio. The crowd retreats, to Verdi’s exit music, which yields to the intimate sound of four cellos as Otello and Desdemona are left alone, lighted only by the shining Venus. Literally ecstatic, they recall Otello’s battles and Desdemona’s love of him for them. Straight from Shakespeare, the stirred Otello is passionate: “Un bacio, ancora un bacio!” (“A kiss, another kiss!”) The act ends with Otello’s allusion to Venus, as the four cellos return, and Verdi’s strings replicate the star’s radiance.

act II. The entr’acte begins dark and ominously and becomes deceptively tuneful. We are in the midst of a conversation between the disgraced Cassio and the dishonorable Iago, who falsely pledges to help Cassio regain his former rank. Desdemona is “the general’s general,” he says, so Cassio, must take his cause to her.

In a departure from the play, Iago, left alone, states his “Credo,” his only aria, summing up his malevolence revealed in Shakespeare’s first act.

He puts that malice to work, and suggests to Otello by various word-games that Desdemona is unfaithful, and that Cassio is her lover. When Otello angrily succumbs to Iago’s accusations, the latter reinforces them with a feigned caution of jealousy’s dangers. Otello demands proof of Desdemona’s infidelity.

Desdemona enters, surrounded by women of Cyprus, children and sailors. They offer her flowers and sing to her, accompanied by the sound of a guzla, a form of mandolin. Otello is so taken by the scene that he utters to himself, “If she be false to me, then heaven mocks itself.”

Cassio has enlisted Desdemona’s assistance, following Iago’s suggestion, and now she enters to plead Cassio’s case to Otello. Otello rejects her and he becomes increasingly hostile, his temples throbbing. When Desdemona offers to wipe his brow with her handkerchief, il fazzoletto (the one he gave to her “as my first token of love”), he throws it to the ground. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, picks-up the handkerchief.

Seizing the opportunity, Iago demands the handkerchief from Emilia, who suspects he will use it mischievously.

Otello is delirious: He believes his wife true, but he believes her false, and Verdi provides us with that ambivalence as his score ascends and just as quickly descends. Iago’s plan works perfectly as Otello forcefully dismisses his newlywed. Iago is not finished. He now tells Otello that he heard Cassio sleep-talking, as if in a dream and uttering, “Sweet Desdemona, let us hide our love...” None of this is true, of course, but Verdi’s music is so vivid that we need to remind ourselves of Iago’s falsity. Iago seals it all by telling Otello that he has seen Cassio in possession of the handkerchief Otello had given to Desdemona.

The act ends with Iago and Otello swearing vengeance.

act III. The entr’acte recalls Iago’s Act II “jealousy” motive in various guises.

Preparations are being made to greet Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador. But first, Desdemona pleads Otello to pardon Cassio, to which Otello complains of the pain to his forehead he suffered in Act II. This time, though, he asks for the handkerchief, rather than to discard it. Desdemona offers a handkerchief, but it is not the handkerchief. Otello asks what became of it, and when Desdemona says she does not have it about her, he warns her, to the orchestra’s chilling accompaniment: “Take heed! To lose it, or give it away, were perdition!” – a significant response, given what we know about references to witchcraft in Shakespeare’s first act.

Totally out of control, Otello sees the “blackest of crimes on your lily forehead.” The Verdi catalogue contains numerous passages of orchestral sobbing, but nowhere is it as moving as here, as Desdemona has no hint of the cause of her husband’s deterioration.

To comply with Otello’s demand for “proof,” Iago has arranged to meet with Cassio, within Otello’s earshot. Iago slyly leads Cassio to make certain utterances aloud, and even to laugh, which the paranoid Otello assumes is at him. Then, Cassio produces Desdemona’s handkerchief which he innocently found in his quarters, placed there, we know, by Iago. Iago surreptitiously displays it to Otello. That’s it. That’s all Otello needed to see. The only question now is how to kill Desdemona.

Iago responds that she should die in the bed where she “sinned.” This choice so impresses the mad Otello that, there and then, he promotes Iago to captain.

Trumpets announce Lodovico’s arrival from Venice.

Otello announces the duke’s proclamation that he has been recalled to Venice. Cassio is named Otello’s successor in Cyprus, thereby eliminating Iago. Iago, however, suggests to Roderigo that, should anything befall Cassio, Otello, and of course Desdemona, would need to remain in Cyprus. Roderigo sets off to act on that suggestion.

The die is cast: Roderigo will kill Cassio; Otello will smother Desdemona. He orders everyone away, and, with repeated cries of “il fazzoletto” he collapses, unconscious.

Iago sneers to all, “Here is your lion!” “Ecco il leone!” The orchestra’s brass section lets loose with the lion’s roar, ending Act III.

act IV. The final act, set in Desdemona’s bedroom opens with foreboding woodwinds, led by the English horn. Desdemona knows her fate as she readies for bed, but still knows not the cause.

Almost in rote she recites a story learned from her mother, the famed “Willow Song.” She cries a pathetic “Addio” to Emilia.

Following “The Willow Song,” she recites the Ave Maria. Upon her “Amen,” Otello enters accompanied by the lowest, most threatening notes by the double basses. He kisses her once, again, and then again, this time without Venus’s splendor. The orchestra repeats the “baccio” motive from Act I.

When Desdemona awakens, he asks her if she had offered her prayers, for she is about to die a sinner. “Cassio is your lover!” Her denials are in vain. When she asks for Cassio to vouch for her, Otello says that he has been forever silenced. “I am undone and he is betrayed,” she cries. After further dreadful protests, Desdemona is smothered. “As quiet as the grave,” (“calma come la tomba”) observes Otello.

Emilia frantically knocks on the door, and from this point on, as Iago’s scheme unravels, Verdi serially accompanies each character’s unwitting involvement in this tragedy.

When Iago is asked why he engaged in this dreadful plot to prove the dying Desdemona unfaithful, he responds, simply, “I thought her so.” Tal la credea.

Iago escapes and all that remains is for Otello to die at his own hand. “Before I killed thee, wife, I kissed thee thus. Now dying... in the shadow where I lie...a kiss... another kiss...ah!... another kiss...”

Program note and synopsis by Phillip Gainsley.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff