Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Verdi's second Shakespearean opera was to be his last dramatic (in the descriptive sense) work, followed only by his sublimely comedic Falstaff. He began to think about an operatic setting of Otello in 1879, and he asked Arrigo Boito to draft a libretto. However, Verdi was not sure that he had the energy to work and fight for what he felt was needed to bring this tragedy to the stage. Boito and Ricordi, Verdi's publisher, gently prodded the composer, and finally, in 1886, Verdi completed the score. Except for the omission of the first act of the play, the libretto follows very closely the plot of Shakepeare's play. The only major addition is the "Credo" for Iago in Act Two. There is no equivalent passage in the original and yet this aria sums up Iago's philosophy. Boito and Verdi considered using the title "Iago" instead of "Otello," but in time felt that the change would not be for the best. The premiere was a great success not only for Verdi and Boito, but also for the entire cast. For the first performances in France, Verdi rewrote part of Act Three, adding a ballet and condensing the finale of the act. The ballet music is played on concerts occasionally, but the other changes are forgotten.

The score to Otello is extremely dramatic and complex. The curtain rises to a tremendous storm, and Otello's entrance, though less than a minute long, sets the tone for this dramatic role. Otello is the heaviest role Verdi wrote, and only in the love duet is he allowed a chance to show his tender side. The second act duet with Iago has the excitement found in the cabalettas of Verdi's earlier operas, but remains an integral part of the dramatic context. Although Iago has several important solo scenes, it is as the manipulator of others that he is most important. He has no extended scene with long lyric phrases with which to show off his vocal talents. He is almost like a narrator keeping the action moving. Desdemona is one of the most placid of Verdi's heroines, but she does try to stand up to Otello in Act Three. The "Willow song" and "Ave Maria" in Act Four are part of one of the great lyric scenes for soprano. The choral and orchestral writing is among of the most complex that Verdi had yet composed. The repeated use of the "kiss motif" to bind together the opera has been likened to a Wagnerian Leitmotiv, but Verdi uses this device only when Otello is thinking of the kiss, not to foreshadow what will be happening. Otello will continue to be a popular opera as long as a great dramatic tenor is available to sing Otello and a great baritone singing-actor is available to portray Iago.