“Otello” or “Othello,” a grand opera in four acts with text by Arrigo Boito after the drama of Shakespeare, and with music by Verdi, was first presented at La Scala, Milan, Feb. 5, 1887.
Othello, a Moorish general. Iago, his ancient. Cassio, his lieutenant. Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman. Lodovico, an ambassador. Montano, Othello’s predecessor as governor of Cyprus. Desdemona, Othello’s wife. Emilia, wife of Iago. Herald, soldiers, sailors, Cypriots, children.
The scene is laid in Cyprus at the end of the Fifteenth Century. The story follows closely that of the Shakespearian tragedy. The curtain rises upon the seafront. A storm is raging and the crowd watches Othello’s ship, which is battling with the waves. Among the spectators are Cassio, Iago, and Roderigo. The landing is safely accomplished and Othello comes ashore to receive an ovation for his victories in warfare against the Turks. After the storm has subsided and the Moor has withdrawn Cassio, Iago and Roderigo make a convivial gathering about the table. The villainy of Iago, which is seemingly a villainy for villainy’s sake alone, becomes at once apparent. He makes Cassio drunk and incites him to a fight with Montano, who is wounded. Othello, appearing at the moment, deprives Cassio of his rank. Othello then returns to the side of his wife, the gentle Desdemona. A noble love scene follows, in which Othello declares that Were it to die now, ’twere to be now most happy, While thine arms surround me In tender embraces.
Iago now begins to plot and the seeds of jealousy are sown in Othello’s breast. He sends Cassio to Desdemona to beg her to intercede with her husband and then with many insinuations draws Othello’s attention to the inciden, of the visit. Desdemona, surrounded by the adoring people, comes to Othello to present the case of the sorry Cassio but her request for clemency is refused with suspicion. His agitation is so evident that in tender solicitude, she attempts to tie her handkerchief about his throbbing forehead. He casts it away petulantly. Emilia picks it up and has it snatched from her fingers by Iago, who later brings news to Othello that he has seen this bit of lace ” spotted with strawberries ” in Cassio’s hands and whispers that he has heard Cassio murmur Desdemona’s name in his sleep. Both Iago and the Moor take a solemn oath to avenge the latter’s honor. Accordingly, Othello feigns a headache and asks for the lace handkerchief which the unsuspecting wife confesses she has lost. She still pleads Cassio’s cause and is charged in cruel terms with being unfaithful, the injustice of which she in vain protests. Iago brings in Cassio and leads the conversation to Bianca, skilfully turning the dialogue to make Othello, whom he knows is concealed near by, believe they are speaking of Desdemona. Cassio draws forth the fatal handkerchief which Iago has left at his house and the maddened Othello believes the evidence to be final. In his rage and jealousy, he seeks council of Iago, who advises him to punish the erring wife by strangling her. Desdemona again is repulsed in the presence of the Venetian Embassy, while the feelings of Othello are so overwrought, that he falls in convulsions.
The last act takes place in Desdemoria’s apartment. She is filled with foreboding but at last falls asleep, only to be awakened by Othello’s kisses, and to be told that she is to die. Deaf to her pathetic assertions of innocence, he stifles her. Emilia, hearing the sound of a struggle, comes in. She discloses Iago’s villainy and the remorseful Moor stabs himself.
” Otello ” ranks high among Verdi’s works and marks a distinct and notable advance in the composer’s style. The influence of Wagner’s theories is plainly shown. Verdi did not imitate slavishly any of the achievements of the Bayreuth master, but rather accepted as correct the principles governing music drama which Wagner laid down and then, preserving his own musical individuality and the art attributes of his own nation, he applied those principles in the creation of ” Otello.” The orchestra is given a more prominent and important role to play than in any of his previous works, the set aria and the concerted number are largely done away with, while certain phrases are employed frequently in the score, somewhat in the manner of the Wagnerian leading motive. The rich flow of melody and the passion which are characteristically Verdian are finely in evidence, however, throughout the entire work, and there is no mistaking the individual or the nation that created it. Verdi was fortunate in having Boito as his librettist, for the Shakesperian text has been adapted with rare intelligence and understanding. All superfluous detail has been omitted, yet the essential strength and power of the tragedy have been preserved. Nothing new has been added save a ” credo ” for Iago, in which that arch-villain voices his distrust and contempt for all that is good and noble in humanity and life. This is a forceful bit of writing which forms the basis for one of the strongest moments in the opera. In addition to this credo for Iago, the score contains, as notable portions, the music accompanying the storm in which Othello arrives; the drinking song for Iago; the beautiful love duet between Othello and Desdemona at the close of the first act; the dramatic duet by Iago and the Moor; a graceful mandolinata, sung by children who bring flowers and shells to Desdemona ; Othello’s ” Farewell to war; ” Desdemona’s plea for mercy after Othello’s great outburst in the third act ; the sextet which follows ; Desdemona’s exquisite ” Willow Song” and the ” Ave Maria,” which is equally beautiful and which shows Verdi as past master in the writing of simple, pure melodies.