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8.660357-58 - VERDI, G.: Otello [Opera] (R.D. Smith, Angeletti, Catana, Orfeón Donostiarra, Oviedo Filarmonía, Haider)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Lyric Drama in Four Acts
Otello – Robert Dean Smith, Tenor
It was not until 1886 that Giuseppe Verdi, now 73 years old, completed his version of Shakespeare’s drama Otello, a play that, as Bernard Shaw was to point out, had all the ingredients of an Italian opera. In 1871 Aida had had its first performance at the opera house in Cairo, and three years later Verdi had conducted the first performance of his Requiem, written to mark the death of Alessandro Manzoni, author of the historical novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). Some care, however, needed to be exercised to induce him to tackle a new opera. The idea of such a work came from the young Giulio Ricordi, who had taken over much of the business of the publishing house founded by his grandfather. The matter was discussed with the composer and librettist Arrigo Boito, and Verdi was gradually tempted with Boito’s version of Shakespeare’s play, a work that would challenge and defeat Rossini’s version of the drama, with its difficulties of casting and cavalier treatment of the original work by Rossini’s librettist, Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa. Verdi had great respect for Shakespeare. In 1847 he had, with the librettist Francesco Maria Piave, created his opera Macbeth. For his last opera, Falstaff, he was to return, with Boito, to Shakespeare.
In adapting spoken drama to the needs of opera certain changes are inevitable. Boito cut the first act of the play, set in Venice, with something of the necessary information about Otello’s wooing of Desdemona given in a duet after Cassio’s dismissal from his captaincy. The decision to start the opera with Act II of the play, as Otello’s arrival in Cyprus is awaited, makes a highly dramatic opening. Operatic convention of the time is settled with the final concertato ensemble of Act III of the opera, followed by Otello’s fainting fit, from the first scene of Act IV of the play. Various other abridgements and adjustments were made by Boito, in consultation with Verdi, and careful attention was given to the varied Italian versification. By the start of November 1886 the whole work was finished.
Shakespeare’s play was based on the story of Otello as recounted in the Hecatommithi of Giambattista Giraldi Cintio, published in Venice in 1566, with a French translation published in Paris in 1584. No English source of the period is known. In Cinthio, as in the opera, Iago is evil, no mere jealous, disgruntled soldier, and it is of interest that it was at one time suggested that the opera should bear the name of its villain. Verdi, however, insisted on the title Otello. Presumably Boito would have had no need to consult Cinthio, whose narrative goes on to diverge very considerably from the rather short version of the plot sanctified by Shakespeare.
The scene is set in Cyprus at the end of the fifteenth century. A castle is seen, with sea-walls and the sea in the background, and an inn, with a pergola. There is a storm, with thunder and lightning.
 People watching for the arrival of the General from Venice greet the appearance of a sail, and Montano, Othello’s predecessor as Governor of Cyprus, sees the standard of Venice, the Lion of St Mark. Cassio, a captain in the Venetian forces, sees the boat struggling with the waves, and the people pray for the ship’s safety. Iago and Roderigo, however, reveal their thoughts, hoping for disaster. The ship comes safely to port.
 Othello enters, mounting the steps from the shore to the ramparts, followed by his soldiers and sailors. He tells the people to rejoice, entering the castle, followed by Cassio, Montano, and the soldiers. As the storm fades, Iago advises Roderigo to bide his time, as Desdemona will soon tire of her Moorish husband. Meanwhile the ship is being unloaded, and people gather wood for a bonfire in celebration. Iago expresses his hatred of the Moor and his ill-feeling towards Cassio, promoted above him. As the bonfire starts to burn, Iago and Roderigo move away, their words lost.
 Soldiers gather round the tables of the inn, and the people celebrate, drinking and talking.
 By one of the tables stand Iago, Roderigo, and Cassio, with some soldiers. Iago presses his two companions to drink. Cassio demurs, but then reluctantly drinks, as Iago urges, to the health of Desdemona. As he praises her, Iago, aside, tells Roderigo to beware of him, a dangerous rival, if he seeks Desdemona for himself.
 More wine is brought, and people gather round, as Iago forces Cassio to drink more and more. His next step is to suggest that Roderigo pick a quarrel with Cassio, who is now drunk.
 They are interrupted by the arrival of Montano, who comes to summon Cassio to his duty on watch. Iago takes the opportunity to tell Montano that Cassio drinks in this way every night, behaviour that Montano promises to report to Othello. Cassio, drunkenly, makes to go, but is provoked into attacking Roderigo, and draws his sword on Montano who intervenes and calls him a drunkard. Iago tells Roderigo to run and raise the alarm.
 The affray is ended by Othello, who tells the two to drop their swords. Iago can offer no explanation. They are joined by Desdemona. Montano is wounded, and Cassio deprived of his command. Othello tells Iago to go through the town quietening the people, while others help Montano.
 Alone with Desdemona Othello is calm again, comforted by his great love.
 She recalls the stories he used to tell her of his exploits in war, and their love.
 The sky is now calm, and Othello calls on death to come, sealing the ecstasy of their embrace. They kiss as the Pleiades sink into the sea, and move together towards the castle.
The scene changes to a large room in the castle, divided from the gardens by glazed arches and a terrace.
 Iago is pretending to comfort the disgraced Cassio, who will soon find solace with his mistress, Bianca. He advises him to persuade Desdemona to intercede for him; he will find her walking the garden in the afternoon. As Cassio goes, Iago exults.
 In his famous Credo Iago expounds his cynical philosophy of life, evil his only aim, and life empty, leading to Death, then Nothing, and Heaven a foolish tale.
 Desdemona is seen walking in the garden with Iago’s wife Emilia, her confidante. Iago urges Cassio, standing by the balcony adjoining the room, to approach her. He does so and then plans to bring Othello to see them together. At this moment Othello appears.
 Iago pretends not to see him, and remarks, as if to himself, that he does not like what he sees. Othello questions him, but Iago denies anything untoward, going on to insinuate that Cassio has known Desdemona before her marriage. He continues to stir up Othello’s jealousy, something against which he finally warns him, once the mischief has been done. He goes on to a clearer insinuation of Desdemona’s guilt, while distant voices are heard. He tells Othello to watch.
 Desdemona is seen again in the garden, now surrounded by women and children, and by sailors, bringing her gifts and praising her. The scene is one of happiness. Iago, in an aside, threatens to break the harmony, while Othello is enchanted.
 Desdemona approaches, innocently urging Othello to pardon Cassio. He persistently refuses, and when his head seems to throb she tries to soothe his brow with her handkerchief, which Othello brushes aside, letting it fall to the ground. She pleads with him to know how she has offended him, while Iago forces Emilia to give him the handkerchief. Emilia suspects some evil afoot, but is told by her husband to say nothing. Desdemona and Emilia go, but Iago, seeming about to leave, lingers behind with Othello.
 Distraught, Othello is now convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, while Iago resolves to hide the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodgings, watching with approval Othello’s growing jealousy and anger. Othello blames Iago for revealing to him what he now thinks to be the truth.
 He bids farewell now and for ever to his love and his victories, his glory ended. Turning to Iago, he orders him to find proof of Desdemona’s guilt, seizing him and throwing him to the ground. Iago, picking himself up, declares that it is no use being honest, while Othello has doubts.
 Iago tells Othello of Cassio talking of Desdemona in his sleep, confessing their love. Othello is horrified, but Iago now brings forward the matter of the handkerchief, Desdemona’s, that he had seen Cassio holding.
 Othello, in fury, swears revenge, while Iago pledges his faith to him. Together they swear to join in vengeance.
The scene is set in the great hall of the castle. To the right is a colonnade, next to a smaller hall. There is a terrace in the background.
 A herald announces the arrival of ambassadors from Venice. Othello signs to the herald to go and turns to Iago, who promises to bring Cassio where Othello can watch his behaviour, reminding the latter of the handkerchief, as Desdemona appears.
 She greets her husband, but Othello hints darkly at her perfidy. She wants to intercede for Cassio, but he asks her for the handkerchief that he had given her, something enchanted, the loss of which would bring disaster. He insists that she fetch the handkerchief, while she still urges pardon for Cassio. He seizes hold of her and demands that she damn herself by swearing fidelity. She pleads her innocence, asking what wrong she has done. From extreme anger his mood changes to one of ironic calm, as he seeks her hand, the hand of a courtesan that married Othello. He pushes her out of the hall.
 In despair he calls on God, who could have tormented him in any way but this; let her confess her crime, then die. Iago enters, telling him Cassio is at hand and bidding him hide and watch.
 Iago leads Cassio into the seemingly empty hall, the latter expecting to find Desdemona. He tells him to talk of his love, Bianca, while Othello half overhears and misunderstands what is being said. Cassio tells of a strange gift, an embroidered handkerchief, the giver unknown. Cassio shows it to Iago, who makes sure that Othello sees it.
 Iago says that the handkerchief is a spider’s web that will ensnare Cassio, who takes it back, admiring the handiwork, while Othello, still looking on, is incensed. Trumpets in the distance announce the arrival of the Venetian trireme, and Iago tells Cassio to go, avoiding Othello. Left with Iago, Othello seeks to know how to kill Desdemona, now convinced of her guilt. Iago suggests that he should suffocate her in the bed where she had sinned, while he himself, now promoted captain, will see to Cassio. He leaves, while Othello goes to receive the ambassadors. He soon returns with the Venetian ambassador Lodovico and other dignitaries from Venice. They are joined by Desdemona and Emilia, ladies and gentlemen, soldiers, trumpeters and, finally, Cassio.
 There are cheers for the Lion of St Mark, and Othello receives documents from Venice, which he reads. Lodovico cannot see Cassio, and Desdemona suggests that he may soon be in favour again. Othello tells her to be silent and eventually is only prevented from striking her by the intervention of Lodovico, appalled at what he has seen. Cassio is summoned, while Lodovico questions Iago about Othello, who is as he is, Iago tells him. The despatches recall Othello to Venice, appointing Cassio in his place. Othello has throughout spoken harshly to Desdemona, and Lodovico vainly asks him to comfort her. He, however, seizes hold of her, and she falls. Iago picks up the despatch that Othello has dropped and reads it, while Lodovico and Emilia help Desdemona up.
 Desdemona expresses her grief and anguish, while Emilia, Cassio, Roderigo, and Lodovico express their own thoughts. Iago tells Othello that his revenge must come soon, again assuring him that he will deal with Cassio. To Roderigo he suggests that any accident to Cassio will mean that Othello and Desdemona will stay in Cyprus. Those present have expressed their pity for Desdemona and their shock at Othello’s behaviour. Eventually he turns on them in fury. Lodovico tries to drag her away, but she insists on running to Othello, who curses her. They all leave, with Iago watching the progress of his poison, as Othello falls unconscious, while voices are heard praising the hero’s victory. Iago, in final triumph, points to the prostrate body of Othello, with the words Ecco il Leone!, Behold the Lion!
The scene is Desdemona’s bed-chamber. There is a bed, a prie-dieu, a table, mirror and chairs. A lamp burns before the statue of the Madonna over the prie-dieu. There is a door to the right. It is night.
 Emilia is helping Desdemona prepare for bed, and asks if Othello is calmer. Desdemona tells her that he seemed so. She tells Emilia to lay out her white wedding-gown. After Desdemona’s death Emilia should lay on her one of the veils.
 She is sad, and recalls her mother’s maid Barbara, abandoned by her lover, and her song of the green willow. She seems to hear a knock at the door, but it is the wind. She bids Emilia farewell.
 Kneeling at the prie-dieu, Desdemona, recites the Ave Maria, asking that she pray for Othello, in his grief, and for all at the hour of their death. She continues in prayer, then rises and goes to bed.
 Othello appears, entering through a secret door. He lays his scimitar on the table, and hesitates before the candle, looking at Desdemona, and then extinguishing it. He makes a movement of anger, then approaches the bed, drawing aside the curtains, looking at Desdemona as she sleeps, then awakening her with a kiss. He asks if she has prayed and tells her that she should now repent of any sin, as he would not kill her soul. He accuses her of loving Cassio, but she swears her innocence, telling him to call Cassio. Othello tells her that Cassio is dead. She pleads for her life, but in vain. Othello smothers her. Knocking is heard at the door.
 Othello looks at Desdemona, as quiet as the grave. There is further knocking, and Emilia calls out to speak to Othello, bringing news that Cassio has killed Roderigo. The voice of Desdemona is heard from the bed, unjustly killed and dying, pleading still her innocence, but not accusing Othello. He, however, claims that it was his own action, killing a woman who was Cassio’s whore, as Iago would testify. Emilia cries out at his folly in believing Iago, summoning help, as she breaks away from Othello. Lodovico, Cassio and Iago come in, followed by Montano and some men. Iago’s duplicity is finally revealed, but Othello seizes his sword.
 Othello declares that he is now at the end of his journey. He drops his sword, and approaches the bed, gazing at Desdemona, then drawing a dagger from his robe and stabbing himself, dying with the words ‘un bacio… un bacio ancora… ah… un’altro bacio…’, ‘a kiss … a kiss again … ah! .. another kiss’, as the curtain falls.
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