Online opera guide and synopsis to Giuseppe Verdi’s OTELLO
This opera by Giuseppe Verdi is considered a congenial work on Shakespeare’s contribution to world literature. For many tenors, the role of Otello is the crowning achievement of their career.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (Harbour scene)
♪ Act II (Hall scene)
♪ Act III (Garden scene)
♪ Act IV (Death scene)
♪ Gia nella notte (Love duet)
♪ Mia madre aveva un povera ancella (Willow song)
Roles and Synopsis
Arrigo Boito, based on the drama of the same name by William Shakespeare.
Otello, Moorish commander of the Venetian fleet (tenor) - Desdemona, Otello's wife (soprano) - Iago, Otello's ensign (baritone) - Emilia, Jago's wife (mezzo-soprano) - Cassio, Otello's captain (tenor) - Roderigo, Venetian nobleman (tenor)
DECCA with Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi and Aldo Protti conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
On the way to the music drama
The unique position of “Otello” in the work of the great Italian master is connected with the consequent step to the musical drama of a through composed opera. A path that he had already embarked upon with Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra and consistently continued with Otello. It is no longer the individual numbers that form the structure of the opera, but the dramatic units of the scenes. The flow of plot and music is no longer disturbed by the artificial division into recitativo and aria. In addition, Arrigo Boito’s text is no longer structured in classical verse dimensions, but is more natural and diverse. This makes the music more dramatic, at the expense of the recurring melody. Of course, this is related to Wagner’s musical drama and the infinite melody, even though Verdi as a cultural nationalist (Abbate, Parker) rejected this several times.
The collaboration with the librettist Arrigo Boito
Verdi was almost 70 years old and didn’t want to write any more works. He enjoyed his large country house in Sant’Agata with his 16 employed gardeners. During a dinner the publisher Ricordi and the conductor Faccio talked with Verdi and his wife about Shakespeare’s dramas as models for operas. A little later they sent Arrigo Boito to him to talk casually about a libretto for Otello. Both were united by their love for Shakespeare’s works. Verdi caught fire and secretly wrote this opera. 6 years later the work was completed and Verdi triumphed with his work 1887 in the Milan Scala, 16 years after his last work, the “Aida”.
With Boito Verdi found a congenial librettist for the first time. Boito took over Shakespeare’s plot and formed a compact libretto which drew the characters sharply. Boito was himself a renowned opera composer (his main work was “Mefistofele”) and was thus able to create an optimal libretto for Verdi.
It was astonishing that this collaboration worked on the personal level. The two artists were from different generations and Boito expressed himself critically several times in earlier years about the Italian opera of the first half of the century. He found it provincial in comparison to the Paris grand opéra. Verdi perceived this as a personal attack on himself.
Verdi and Boito adhered quite closely to Shakespeare’s drama. Of course, the verses had to be rewritten for opera, because the speed of speech in opera is much lower than in spoken theatre. In addition, they completely omitted the first act, which takes place in Venice, so as not to overload the work with secondary themes, with the result that the 3300 lines of verses in Shakespeare’s work finally became 800 verses in the opera.
The good against the evil
Verdi and Boito have the three main characters each invoke God in a big scene. Jago’s Credo in the second act, Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” in the third act and Otello’s “Dio mi potevia scagliar”. All three performances are portraits of the roles. While Iago represents “evil” and Desdemona “good,” Otello is (in modern parlance) the “victim,” becoming a resigned individual who mutates into an instrument of evil to destroy good.
At Verdi’s request, the work was kept secret for a long time. He composed at his Sant’Agata estate and the name of the opera was never mentioned in his correspondence with Ricordi and Boito, the code name “Progetto Cioccolatte” or “Caffélatte” was used instead.
When the opera was announced, all of Europe was eagerly awaiting the premiere on February 5, 1887. The last premiere of a Verdi opera had already been 15 years ago. Verdi had in the meantime acquired the status of a father of the country and was already a “national treasure”. There was great astonishment at the music of the “new” Verdi, hardly anyone expected a reinvention of the maestro. The jubilation that set in after the last note was boundless and one of Verdi’s great triumphs.
OTELLO ACT I
The opening with the tempest scene
Synopsis: In front of the castle at the port of Cyprus. A hurricane-like thunderstorm rages. The Cypriot and Venetian soldiers are assembled and expect the arrival of the vessel with Otello’s, who is to take over its office as new commander-in-chief.
The beginning of this opera is unique. There is no overture at the beginning, but a fortissimo outbreak of a violent storm. Verdi has set this hurricane scene to music in detail. In the manner of the Paris grand opéra he completed the orchestra with an organ and a thunder machine.
Una Vela – Canadian Opera
Synopsis: The vessel safely reaches the port and Otello proclaims victory in the naval battle over the Turks. The people celebrate the hero.
This tenor performance is regarded as one of the most difficult starting scenes in opera literature. Otello appears at a running pace and has to sing the triumphal “Esultate” at the highest possible volume against the orchestra without having the opportunity “warm up” his vocal cords .
Esultate – Domingo
A air of history surrounds the next recording. We hear the Othello of the premiere of 1883, Francesco Tamagno. There are recordings of him from 1903. Verdi appreciated the boundless power of his voice and the great sound of the High Passages. But Verdi complained, that Tamagno could only sing loudly, although the opera requires different skills. In the second half, longer passages had to be sung with a hollow, desperate voice at half volume. Tamagno sang the Otello 400 times during his career. Let’s listen to an excerpt from his recording from 1903.
Esultate – Tamagno
In contrast to Shakespeare’s work, Otello’s skin colour hardly plays a role in the opera. While the theme of skin colour and the resulting racism is a central aspect of the literary model, this aspect was secondary for Verdi and Boito and is mentioned only a few times in the dialogues.
Synopsis: Among the soldiers are Otello’s Ensign Iago and Rodrigo, a nobleman. Both hate Otello. Iago, because Otello overlooked him in a promotion and elected Cassio captain and Rodrigo, because he is still in love with Otello’s wife Desdemona, but she married the hated Moor. Jago joins forces with Rodrigo and announces that he continues to pretend to be Otello’s friend, but will strike at the right moment. Otello has now arrived at the castle and the Cypriots celebrate victory with a bonfire.
Fuoco di gioia – K&K Philharmoniker & Choir
Jago‘s first intrigue
Synopsis: Iago discovers Cassio. He wants to seduce him to drink, Cassio refuses at first because he is on duty. Jago knows that Cassio becomes a hothead when he drinks. Cassio gives in and is soon drunk. Jago asks Rodrigo to provoke him. In fact, Cassio pulls out his sword and Montano tries to hold him back and Cassio wounds him.
The drinking song is formally the only self-contained number in the opera. Jagos “beva,beva, beva” leads the voice chromatically into the depths and then to the high A, which creates a demonic effect.
Inaffio l’ugola – Nucci
The great love duet
Synopsis: Otello has heard the noise and appears. He sees that Cassio has injured the old commander Montano. He takes away Cassio’s captain’s rank and sends them all home. He remains alone with Desdemona, where he finds peace in her arms.
This love duet is one of the highlights of the opera. The two stand on the terrace in the evening and look out over the calm sea. Muted solo cellos introduce us to the romantic nighttime mood, and Desdemona is accompanied by shimmering harps. But Verdi does not compose a typical love duet, too much despair and drama are palpable. In the second part, Verdi creates a beautiful, almost Wagnerian theme with an urgent effect:
We will encounter this so-called “kiss motif” once again in the last act, among others in Otello’s death scene. The scene ends with flutes and harps, accompanied by strings.
Domingo captivates in this recording as an urgent and ecstatic Otello.
Gia della notte – Domingo / Studer
OTELLO ACT II
Synopsis: In a hall in the castle. Iago continues his intrigue with Cassio. He visits him and plays his confidante. He advises the desperate Cassio to talk to Desdemona and win their intercession at Otello. Right now she is in the garden. When Cassio goes to speak to her, Iago silently triumphs.
Next, we’ll hear Iago’s famous credo. Iago’s musical character is dominated by declamation. Verdi only writes melodies and harmonies in the passages where Iago wants to flatter or deceive. In his “Credo” we see the unvarnished Iago. In the declamation song and the characterization of Iago it is impossible for us not to see the parallels to Wagner. Verdi denied this vehemently, he did not want to be seen as the copyer of an original.
Verdi uses vehement musical means to draw Iago as evil. Jagged leaps in tone, shrill contrasts and chromatic tone sequences, together with the effect of increasing the pitch, make the Credo appear to be the opposite of the traditional Christian Credo. We hear a demonic Bryn Terfel in this nihilistic confession of Iago.
Credo – Terfel
Toscanini himself rehearsed the role of Jago with Valdengo. The result is a captivating role portrait. There were Jagos who had better vocal material available but his diction is very expressive and monumental.
Credo – Valdengo
Synopsis: By Chance Otello appears and Iago wants to let the jealousy germinate in the Moor. Otello noticed that someone was in the garden with his wife. Skilfully Iago lets Otello suspect that Desdemona might be in love with Cassio. But Otello is not convinced yet, without proof he still believes in love. But woe betide if if she should betray him.
Cio m’acccora … che parli – del Monaco / Gobbi
Synopsis: On her way to the castle, the people pay homage to the benevolent Desdemona. When she sees Otello, she asks him to give Cassio back his rank as captain. Otello has a terrible suspicion. He is agitated, claims to have a headache and doesn’t want to talk about it. Desdemona wants to cool his forehead with a handkerchief to alleviate the pain. But Otello throws the handkerchief away angrily. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s friend , picks it up and Iago snatches it from her. Emilia suspects evil and warns him.
For Domingo, Otello was perhaps the greatest tenor role ever and also the most challenging, mainly because of the 2nd act, “which is an opera within the opera”. Especially the quartet “se incoscia” is a very demanding part and from then on Otello is constantly challenged in this act.
Se incoscia contro te – Domingo / Studer / Leiferkus
Synopsis: Otello sends Desdemona away and is already eaten away by jealousy. Again alone with Iago, he doesn’t just want to see accusations from Iago, but visible proof. Now he tells him that one night when he was in the camp next to Cassios bed he heard him talking about Desdemona in his sleep and cursing the fate that gave Desdemona to the Moor.
Verdi shows his mastery in this scene, how he creates a spooky atmosphere in this dream scene. In Iago’s portrayal, the singing scenes are accompanied by sparse string sounds, while the declamatory passages are accompanied only by pale woodwinds.
We hear a gripping interpretation of “Era la notte” by the young Tito Gobbi from 1948: “Tito Gobbi transforms the piece into a suggestion diabolique” (Kesting).
Era la notte – Gobbi
Synopsis: As evidence, he states that he saw Cassio holding the handkerchief that was Otello’s first gift to Desdemona.
We hear the great and famous recording of this passage by Caruso with a uniquely red glowing passion.
Desdemona rea … Ora per sempre addio – Caruso
A second interpretation by Domingo.
Ora per sempre addio – Domingo
The great Duet of Iago and Otello – Si, pel ciel
Synopsis: Now Othello is convinced of Desdemona’s guilt. He swears a solemn oath of revenge and Iago joins him.
In the oath scene you can still see the remains of the old Verdian Opera. In the style of a cabaletta, a fast one-strophic climax, Verdi composes the end of the second act. Before the oath the three famous “Sangue” shouts sound. In this scene one can musically observe how Otello has his own musical form at the beginning, but gradually adapts to Iago’s style of declamation until he falls into a mere imitation of Iago, a sign that Iago has gained complete control over Otello.
We hear this key scene in four different recordings.
Mario del Monaco was not a singer of nuances. So the opinion about del Monaco split. Nobody has sung the role so often on record. In this recording, “del Monaco is driven by an electrifying furor that stirs everyone up. The Si pel ciel is breathtaking, and their sangue screams even push the record listener into his chair – it’s the performance with which he sang himself into Otello Olympus.” (Fischer, great voices).
Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro (1) – del Monaco / Warren
In 1914, the two titans of the Italian opera sang this duet. Tito Ruffo the century baritone and Enrico Caruso the century tenor cultivated an artistic rivalry.
Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro (2) – Caruso / Ruffo
The recording of Björling and Merrill of this duet enjoys a legendary reputation. Björling’s sangue calls are gigantic (1:54), the energy is palpable. “An almost volcanic energy and vehemence. Each syllable is sung by Björling with the greatest emphasis.” (Kesting). This excerpt is the only recording of Björling in this role.
Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro (3) – Björling / Merrill
OTELLO ACT III
Otello humiliates Desdemona
Synopsis: Iago and Otello are in the Great Hall of the castle. Iago wants to involve Cassio in a conversation in the hall and Otello shall listen in secret. Iago leaves to fetch Cassio. Desdemona appears. She once again intercedes for Cassio. But Otello only wants to see the handkerchief. He accuses Desdemona of infidelity. Desdemona swears to be chaste. Livid by the supposed lie, Otello curses her as a whore.
One of the difficulties of the third act for Otello is to bring the diabolical irony into the singing. It is fascinating to observe how Verdi develops the role of Otello during the opera. In the “Esultate” of the first act we see a radiant expressive singer, in Act II he becomes a roaring lion and in this and the fourth act a whining protagonist.
Vickers was a great Othello. His vocal power was legendary and yet a great sentimentality shines through.
Dio ti giocondi – Vickers / Freni
Otello’s inner drama
Synopsis: When Desdemona is gone Otello collapses, the love for Desdemona was the most important thing in his life. His light of life is gone, his soul is eaten away and craves revenge.
The true drama of this work by Shakespeare takes place inside the characters. Otello must bring all shades of personality to life. Verdi requires Otello to constantly alternate between recitative, declamation and cantabile singing. The tenor’s score is strewn with constantly changing expression marks (piano, morendo, dolce, con espressione, etc.). “Dio mi potevi scagliar” starts in the pale tone of despair, goes on to a middle section in piano and ends in the fortissimo of “Ah dannazione”.
Verdi and Boito have the three main actors each call on God in a big scene. Iago’s Credo in Act 2, Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” in Act 3 and Otello’s “Dio mi potevia scagliar”. All three are portraits of the roles. While Iago represents the “evil” and Desdemona the “good”, Otello (in modern usage) is the “victim”, he becomes a resigned individual who mutates into an instrument of evil to destroy the good.
We hear the key scene of this opera in three interpretations.
For many, Vinay was the archetype of Otello after Tamagno. Equipped with thick vocal chords, the Chilean tenor first sang as a baritone and then switched to heroic tenor. Otello was the role of his life, but he ruined his voice with Wagner roles. So was singing of Otello less than 10 years. The following excerpt is from the complete recording with Toscanini. Toscanini’s interpretation has a touch of the original. He was a cellist in the orchestra at the first performance in 1883 and later worked with Verdi as conductor of his works. Thus this recording has a historically elevated status. This complete recording is generally regarded as one of the greatest recordings in the history of opera.
Dio mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali (1) – Vinay
The second tenore con forza next to Vinay was Mario del Monaco. He sang the role 427 times in the course of his career. Mario del Monaco did not play the role of Otello but he was Othello. He told that the age-related farewell from the stage was the darkest day of his life. Mario del Monaco died on 16 October 1982. His last wish was to be buried in the costume of Otello.
Dio mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali (2) – del Monaco
The next interpretation is from Lauritz Melchior in a German-language recording. Especially remarkable is his impressive crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo of “quel raggio”.
Dio mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali (3) – Melchior
Synopsis: Iago appears and reports that Cassio is on the terrace. Otello quickly hides and Iago engages Cassio in a conversation. Iago wants him to talk about Bianca, his lover. Otello hears Cassio and thinks he is talking about Desdemona. The laughter of the two makes his blood boil and when Cassio pulls out the handkerchief that Iago had put in his room, everything is clear for Otello.
Vienni, l’aula è deserta … Questa è una ragna – Gobbi / Del Monaco
Synopsis: That’s the death sentence for Desdemona. Otello orders Iago to get a poison. Iago proposes him to strangle Desdemona on the bed where she has sinned. This idea appeals to Otello and he appoints him as captain. The fanfares announce the arrival of a Venetian envoy.
Viva! Evviva!Viva il Leon di San Marco!
Synopsis: The hall fills with people as the envoy appears. Otello greets him in the presence of Desdemona. Otello is paid homage as lion of Venice. The envoy hands him a letter from the Doge. The envoy asks where Cassio is, Desdemona takes the opportunity to stand up for Cassio once again with Otello. Otello scornfully reads that he must return to Venice and Cassio becomes the new commander of Cyprus. In blind rage Otello throws Desdemona to the ground and curses her. Everyone is shocked. Iago’s plans threaten to fail and he urges Otello to act quickly, he himself will account for Cassio.
OTELLO ACT IV
Desdemona’s farewell to the world
Synopsis: In Desdemona’s bedchamber. The presentiment of death grabs her and Emilia tries to calm her down. Desdemona wants Emilia to put her wedding dress on her bed. When she dies, she wants to be buried in it. Desdemona she sings the ballad of her mother’s maid who was abandoned by her husband and says goodbye to Emilia.
This piece, the so-called willow song, has a peculiar harmony. The excessive pitch suggests an oriental origin. The voice is accompanied by a harp, beside it this piece has an economical instrumentation, which increases the urgency of this song. Verdi made the ending particularly dramatic, where first the wind rattles the window threateningly and Desdemona says goodbye to Barbara, at first like every evening, but then when she realizes that it could be the last time she embraces Barbara and sings a high note filled with pain.
In 1963 Maria Callas sang this scene in a recital in her comeback. The interpretation is impressive.
Mia madre avea una povera ancella – Callas
Synopsis: Alone in the room she prays to the Virgin Mother in anticipation of her hour of death.
Verdi and Boito tried to clearly sculpt the characters of the main characters. Verdi wrote in a letter how he tried to put this into music. “The Desdemona is a role in which the thread, the melody line, never breaks from the first note to the last. Just as Iago only has to declaim and sneer, and just as Otello, once the warrior, once the passionate lover, once devastated … and once brutal like a barbarian, has to sing and chant, Desdemona always has to sing” (Verdi, quoted from Abbate/Parker).
Desdemona, and not Otello, is Iago’s true opponent. In contrast to Otello, she is able to successfully elude Iago’s influence. Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” makes it most obvious that the the “Ave Maria” is the counterpart to Iago’s “Credo”. The contrast manifests itself not only in the content (evil vs. good), but also in the music. Thus Desdemona’s Prayer is in Major and Iagos’ is in Minor, while the former is dominated by ascending scales and the latter by descending scales.
in the first recording. We hear Renata Tebaldi. Her Ave Maria is supernatural, brilliance and rapture are touching. The Desdemona was one of the most important roles of her career and was both the first and last role she sang at the Met.
Ave Maria – Tebaldi
Yoncheva received excellent reviews for her role debut at Desdemona 2015. An intimate and impressive interpretation of the Bulgarian.
Ave Maria – Yoncheva
The death scene – a spooky atmosphere
Synopsis: Otello appears and asks if she had prayed, because she has to die now. Otello wants her to confess to having cheated on him with Cassio, the handkerchief is the proof. Desdemona swears her innocence and asks for mercy, but Otello strangles her with his bare hands.
Muffled double basses create a depressing nightly mood and lead into a spooky mood.
Chi è là – del Monaco
Synopsis: Emilia appears and delivers the news that Cassio has killed Rodrigo. Emilia sees the dying Desdemona, who claims to have killed herself but Otello reveals himself to be the murderer. Emilia calls for help. Cassio and Iago and Montano appear. Otello explains the crime and the handkerchief as evidence. In vain, Iago tries to prevent Emilia from telling the truth. Cassio knows all, the dying Rodrigo has confessed Iago’s deceit. Otello recognizes his fatal error and kills himself with a dagger. Dying, he kisses Desdemona one last time.
Othello sings whether Desdemona evening has already prayed on one toen (“Diceste questa sera le vostri preci”). As in many places, Verdi prescribes the term “cupo”, which means something like dark or gloomy.
“Niun mi tema” is the last death scene that Verdi has written in his long career as a composer. It is resignative. Dark chords in minor accompany Otello to his suicide. Otello collapses dying, the music changes to major and one last time the love melody sounds.
Aprite … Niun mi tema – Domingo
Jonas Kaufmann has always carefully selected his roles. In 2016 he finally sang his first complete Otello. Politically correct, the face was no longer black. The vocal pitch of this role does not correspond to one hundred percent to his voice. His interpretation of the “niun mi tema”, it is that of a vulnerable almost tender Otello.
Niun mi tema – Kaufmann
We hear again the Othello of the premiere, Francesco Tamagno. “No singer has more vividly expressed Verdi’s idea of “sounds almost without key” than Tamagno in the three “morta”-declamations, none has made the last phrase more supple.” (Kesting)
Niun mi tema – Tamagno
Recording recommendation of the opera OTELLO
DECCA with Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi and Aldo Protti under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to OTELLO by Giuseppe Verdi.