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Verdi’s Otello: a tragic masterpiece
This mature work was one of the few operas by Verdi to become an immediate hit with audiences. Yet, no one would have expected this result during the run up to its premiere at Milan’s La Scala. Not only was it said that Verdi would never have time to finish the opera, but also that he’d never agree to write it in the first place. At the time, it seemed that Verdi had only one desire: to retire.
Perhaps he’d become tired of anxiously awaiting the critical reception of his works, having relied on the good will of the demanding Italian public for his whole career. Yet, at 74, Verdi already had some of the greatest works of the repertoire under his belt. Aida had been the last to be received as a great success and it seemed unlikely that Verdi would top it. Then Otello arrived, seducing the reluctant composer with its narrative of the passions and frustrations of a man caught in the torment of a manipulative plot.
It was, without a doubt, the tragic potential of the story and its outcome that convinced Verdi to postpone his retirement. Thankfully he did since Otello became one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces.
A love of Shakespeare
If he was to write an opera again, Verdi was going to make sure the libretto pleased him. His impresario, Guilio Riccordi, understood perfectly. He was well aware of Verdi’s love of Shakespeare, leading him to ask Arrigo Boito, a young librettist, to submit a version of Othello.
Verdi had already composed an opera of Macbeth and had been working on an adaptation of King Lear since 1855 which he never completed. It was surely the allure of one of his favourite playwrights that made him open the libretto. It seemed that Shakespeare was the one keeping Verdi out of retirement since his only other opera after Otello was Falstaff, based on another of Shakespeare’s plays.
Innocent heroes and crooked acolytes: the recipe for a great opera
The libretto made a strong impression on Verdi with its dramatic story, mix of political and romantic intrigue, innocent heroes and crooked acolytes. The setting was well suited to a romantic and modern musical interpretation and spoke to Verdi’s ability to communicate tragedy through the medium of opera.
Originally, the work was to be called ‘Iago’ so as not to confuse it with Rossini’s Otello. This would not have been surprising: Iago’s jealousy, hypocrisy, manipulative nature, and blasphemous creed, ‘I believe in a cruel God’, is the driving force of the plot. Iago’s hatred of Otello and his ambition spurs him to orchestrate Otello’s downfall, planting the seeds of doubt about Otello’s new wife (Desdemona) in the hero’s mind, resulting in the tragic ending.
Seven years in the making
It took Verdi seven years to compose his Otello. The libretto was presented to him in the summer of 1880, but the composer didn’t start work on it until 1884, finally premiering in 1887. With his time being spent on other projects, such as writing Simon Boccanegra, the composer chose not to release a work that didn’t completely please him nor to let any small detail be sacrificed. The creative process, therefore, involved many revisions and a significant amount of time was dedicated to analysing what had already been done.
In addition, the libretto was largely reworked under Verdi’s direction. He wanted to infuse his own interpretation of the play into the drama of the leading couple. Due to this, he gave firm instruction to the librettist, who followed the composer’s suggestions to the letter.
With Otello, Verdi moved away from styles that he’d used in previous works to appeal to more contemporary tastes. He abandoned the structure of a numbered opera in favour of a continuous form, similar to Wagner’s Durchkomponiert (through-composed), where there is little to no breaks in the music.
From this, he was able to create an opera that flowed seamlessly from scene to scene allowing actions to follow each other in quick succession or even overlap. This is used to great effect in Iago’s asides and also in Act II’s quartet, consisting of two intrigues: Othello accusing Desdemona, and Emilia preventing her husband (Iago) from getting his hands on Desdemona’s handkerchief (which will become false proof of her infidelity). Despite the events overlapping within the music, each character remains individualized and each role is given a unique musical function. Puccini would use this structure in the quartet of Act III of La Bohème ten years later.
A surprisingly unconventional work
The evolution of Verdi’s style is apparent from the very beginning of the opera. Otello doesn’t begin with a prelude, opening, or introduction but with a thunderclap and gunshots immediately followed by a chorus. The storm rages over the port of Cyprus while the chorus hopes for Otello’s return from the war with the Turks.
The vocal aspect of the roles were also unconventional for operatic standards. Otello is played by a tenor and the music challenges the singer to explore the whole range of their voice with incredible emotion, Desdemona contrasts Otello with her vocal youth and coloratura, and Iago is a dramatic baritone in a lower tessitura, contrasting with Verdi’s previous works. This gives the character a darker, more sinister tone, much like Puccini’s Scarpia in Tosca.
Thus, Otello became one of the most accomplished works of the maestro, both in his orchestration and in the setting up of the dramatic plot. Inspired by a work of the past, written in the manner of the works of the future, Otello is today considered by many to be the apotheosis of Verdi’s dramatic works.