Met Opera: Verdi’s Otello

Shakespeare’s Moor- a fate intensified by the emotive power of music

In 1901, George Bernard Shaw, the acerbic Irish critic, opined that “for the truth is that instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare. Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.”

The 40-year-old Othello, the hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy (1604), had become a Christianized Moor. As Shakespeare’s drama unfolded he rose to the rank of general and was just been appointed governor of the island of Cyprus, Venice’s outpost in the eastern Mediterranean; Othello’s primary mission was to protect Venice’s eastern trade routes from Ottoman Turk invaders.

Othello has just married Desdemona, a white Caucasian woman from the Venetian aristocracy.The newlyweds’ proudly followed their hearts even though extreme elements of racism and prejudice were prominent adverse currents of Venetian society that scorned their interracial marriage.

Othello had recently promoted Cassio as his captain, an act that caused his begrudging ensign Iago to develop an obsessive hatred for the Moor: a loathing that ultimately transformed into Iago’s all-consuming passion for revenge.

Iago manufactures a sinister plot to destroy Othello that ultimately drives the Moor to the verge of insanity — images that ultimately convince him of Desdemona’s infidelity and what Othello considers “the blackest of crimes.”

At the conclusion of the gripping narrative, Othello murders Desdemona, but after learning that he had been the victim of Iago’s treachery and deceit he commits suicide, no longer able to live in shame and dishonor.

By the sixteenth century the Republic of Venice was the dominant economic power in the eastern Mediterranean, essentially the primary beneficiary of trade with the East following the crusades. At the time, the Ottoman Turks were the implacable terrorists of the eastern Mediterranean, provoking ferocious wars Venice.

Venice was a maritime society. In despair, they were forced to build and develop a military infrastructure to repel the savage Turks; they turned to Moors (a somewhat derogatory title variously used in Europe to identify Muslims, particularly those of Arab or Berber descent living in Spain or North Africa). Moors were reputedly ruthless warriors who the Venetians conscripted as mercenaries and accepting them as equals in their society if they agreed to become Christianized.

Essentially, Shakespeare’s Othello — and Otello, Verdi’s musical dramatic adaptation of the drama — breathes life into humanity’s eternal moral struggle of good versus evil. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the hero becomes the battlefield upon which the forces of good and evil play out their conflict. Otello finds himself at the center of the battle between good and evil; a futile struggle in which he attempts to escape from the web of Iago’s poisonous lies and villainy.

Desdemona represents a force of goodness — a brave and angelic woman of purity and innocence, who is utterly consumed by her love for Otello. Iago is the supreme arch-villain, the incarnation of all evil and the demonic counter-force to the saintly Desdemona. Iago represents terrifying and blasphemous inhumanity — a wily and villainous fiend who achieves his diabolic goals by feeding Otello disinformation, which he cunningly manipulates in order to disorient Otello’s mind.

Otello’s power of reason weakens. He becomes trapped in an emotional storm dominated by suspicion of Desdemona’s betrayal. His rage and fury violently burst out of control. He rushes to judgment and eventually self-destructs, ultimately surrendering to the uncontrollable demons that have possessed his mind.

In the end, Iago’s poisonous jealousy transforms the Moor and completely destroys him, transforming him from a self-assured, courageous hero, into a raging maniac, the possessor of the avenging ferocity of a savage madman.

Pragmatic nihilism governs the souls of Shakespeare’s villains. Nihilism represents a denial of moral truth by declaring existence to be senseless and useless, ultimately provoking man to be solely consumed by death and human destruction.

Nihilism transcends Biblical strictures: Judaic-Christian morality and its rectitude are non-existent. For the nihilist, the concept of God is lost, and the divine is exiled from the soul; what remains is a cosmological void that precludes the path to human redemption or salvation.

In the end, Shakespeare avoids theological supernaturalism or relevant theological truth; in Shakespeare’s traditionally nihilistic oeuvre the values inherent in Judeo-Christian morality are nonexistent.

In the horror of the tragedy that befalls Otello the nihilistic forces of evil are the victors. Iago is the primordial man and possessor of universal villainy that claims both the warrior’s soul and that of the innocent Desdemona.

Director Bartlett Sher has updated the opera’s action from the time of the Republic of Venice’s glory in the sixteenth-century to the late nineteenth-century, the time of Verdi’s composition of the opera. The director’s modifications are subtle and do not impair the intensity of the drama, although endowing historical truth to the time-revision requires much imagination and a suspension of belief — the sets are dominated by extremely large building elements that seem to constantly move about the stage to distraction.

Verdi’s musical dramatization of the tragedy begins as General Otello, Governor of Cyprus, battles a ferocious storm as his fleet returns to port after a victory over the Ottoman Turks. Verdi’s storm music follows the late nineteenth-century conception of “music drama” in which the music is determined solely by its appropriateness to the action. Conductor Nézet-Séguin is an animated, insightful and virtuosic conductor who delivered unabashed intensity and tension to Verdi’s musical description of the storm; at certain moments, the chorus of anxious Cypriots awaiting the return of the ships barked their fears with frenzied intensity. Unquestionably, the Maestro remains at the forefront of opera’s “conductor of the future” as he consistently delivered stirring excitement and insight to his interpretation of the score, although at times, he accommodated occasional weak vocal projection with excessive orchestral ppp’s which contributed to many extremely slow tempi and consequently a loss of some of the score’s fiery energy.

After safely returning to port, Otello, sung by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko forcefully exclaimed his pride, “Esultate (“Rejoice”) — he has defeated the enemy Ottomans and simultaneously defeated the storm. Otello is a punishing role that requires enormous vocal agility through wide vocal ranges. Mr. Antonenko’s lyric tenor voice is impressive but lacks the vocal stamina and heavy dramatic weight required of the hero’s role — the Italianate “squillo” and “ping” so familiar in the voices of past Otello’s such a Martinelli, Del Monaco and Domingo, are regretfully absent.

The Cypriot crowds awaiting Otello on the quay cheer his victory. However, a bitter Iago expresses his hatred of Otello for superseding him and appointing Cassio as captain; likewise, the Venetian gentleman Roderigo fumes with hatred after Otello won the hand of Desdemona, the woman he was pursuing and dreaming of marrying.

The chorus, under the direction of the extremely insightful Maestro Donald Palumbo, sang the “Fuoco di gioia” conveying s true sense of joy and celebration. Afterwards, Iago initiates a “Drinking Song” for Cypriot citizens and sailors to celebrate Otello’s victory. As the revelry progresses, Iago cunningly goads Cassio, ultimately resulting in his total inebriation. A brawl erupts. After the riot alarm rings, Otello appears and ferociously reproaches them. Desdemona also appears, obviously chagrined by the interruption of her first wedding night. Iago’s report to Otello indicts Cassio as responsible for the fray. Outraged, Otello removes Cassio’s captain’s rank.

Otello and Desdemona celebrate their first night of marriage in their bedchamber. The newlyweds become enveloped in the tranquility of a starlit night which inspires them to express their impassioned love for one another — a moment of bliss and the antithesis of the eventual horror of their victimization by Iago’s psychopathic evil.

The lovers reminisce. Like a child seeking a bedtime story, Desdemona prods the Moor to relate the dangers he faced in the field of battle and the subsequent glory of his heroic military deeds.

They recall their courtship, in particular, Otello’s confrontation with Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, before the Venetian Senate, in which Brabantio accused the Moor of using witchcraft to seduce his daughter. In Shakespeare, Othello defended his honor by proclaiming: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her, that she did pity them.” Librettist Arrigo Boito changed a pronoun, and in the love duet proclaims, E tu m’amavi le miei sventure (“You loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved you that you did pity them.”) Desdemona’s response assures Otello of her love as she echoes, “I loved you for the dangers you had passed.”

The sublime music of the love duet intensifies as Verdi’s radiant music soars to a sensuous climax, the lovers becoming intoxicated by the profound love that has overwhelmed their souls. The “kiss theme” resounds — a supreme and climactic moment in which the music ascends chromatically until it reaches a shimmering finale — it is a significant leitmotif of the opera which returns with terrifying irony after Otello has murdered Desdemona.

Their lustrous voices radiantly proclaim, Un bacio “(A kiss”), as the star Venus, the goddess of love, shines brightly in the sky above; Verdi’s magical cellos add blissful intensity to this ecstatic moment of sublime happiness. For Otello and Desdemona, it is the last moment in which they will share their ecstasy together.

Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva remains a welcome addition to opera’s new “golden age of sopranos.” She delivers mellow, elegant and expressive lyricism, with unforced vocal projection. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote that she “seems an artist on the brink of a major career.” and that she “brought lovely stage presence and a sumptuous, penetrating voice to her performance.”A reviewer for The Guardian noted that Ms. Yoncheva was “surely a star in the making” and described her singing as “technically nigh-on faultless.” Mr. Antonenko’s burnished tenor voice strove valiantly to blend with Ms. Yoncheva’s opulent and radiant lyricism.

Iago is 28-years-old. He is described by Cinthio, Shakespeare’s source for the drama, as “An ensign of a most handsome presence, but of the most villainous nature that the world has ever known.” Shakespeare’s cast list describes Iago quite simply: “Iago, a villain,” adding nothing more.

Iago is the genuine author of the drama, the manufacturer of the drama’s threads of destruction that he gathers together and weaves into diabolic form. He is a demonic soul: a quintessentially evil, embittered nihilist.

Iago will inject Otello with the lethal poison of doubt which will ultimately destroy the Moor’s mind. The great hero and lover will fall before Iago’s treachery. In the end, the Moor will forego Christian compassion and forgiveness and will transform into a fire-breathing, vengeful savage.

Iago’s Credo, unveils his evil soul. (The Credo does not appear in the original Shakespeare and was a creation emanating from the Verdi-Boito collaboration.)

A Credo declares and affirms faith in the goodness and righteousness of God: in effect, goodness and virtue represent the presence of God, while evil represents the absence of God.

A Credo is a sacred affirmation of religious faith.

The chilling horror of Iago’s Credo declares his faith in an evil and satanic God, and therefore, is a paradox and irony to Judaic-Christian convictions and morality.

Iago asserts, that he believes “in a cruel god, a monstrous divinity that made him in his own image, and a god he calls upon in hate.” “He believes with all his heart that the evil he thinks and the evil he does are really inspired by a higher power.”

Iago’s Credo represents a deliberate, vicious assault on one’s sensibilities and represents the essence of his terrifying and savage nihilistic philosophy.

Serbian baritone Željko Lucic’s Iago springs to life as an ingeniously conceived, complex, well-etched character, particularly when he is declaring his nihilistic hatred in the “Credo.” Lucic is a consummate Verdi baritone with robust, intense power in his high ranges, and a lush and yearning expressivity in his mid and lower ranges. Strangely, in the simulcast, Lucic seemed to have decided to show-up as a method actor, leaving behind his fabulous Verdi baritone from recent Macbeth and Rigoletto successes.

Iago manipulates Cassio to speak with Desdemona and Emilia as they promenade on a terrace outside the castle. Cassio and Desdemona pass back and forth, seemingly in intimate conversation with one another. Significantly, their meeting is visible by Otello from inside the castle.

The malevolent Iago begins to inject his poison of jealousy — a transformation of Otello from a bold, heroic warrior to a jealous madman obsessed by paranoia; Iago will ultimately convince the Moor of Desdemona’s infidelity, albeit a persuasion based on the flimsiest of evidence.

Iago invokes the mythological green-eyed monster, the symbol of jealousy: Temete, signor, la gelosia! (“My lord, do you fear jealousy? It is a green-eyed monster, dark, livid, and blind. It poisons itself, rips open its own wounds, and feeds on them.”)

While both observe Cassio and Desdemona, Iago whispers hints of doubt to Otello about Desdemona’s past. Doubt! Otello represents the supreme law and demands an investigation. Iago urges him to be vigilant.

Desdemona enters the hall and immediately informs Otello that she is interceding on Cassio’s behalf and immediately pleads for mercy and a pardon for Cassio.

Otello complains that his forehead is burning; good Desdemona cools his brow with a handkerchief. As Otello pushes her away, she drops the handkerchief, which is retrieved by Emilia, Iago’s wife. (The handkerchief was a special wedding gift from Otello to Desdemona — a cherished family heirloom and a symbol of Otello’s love.)

In a quartet that defines the conflicting sentiments of each of the four main characters, Desdemona assures Otello of her love; Iago forcibly grabs the handkerchief from Emilia; and Otello believes that he is being mocked — that perhaps he is being rejected by Desdemona because he is ageing, or perhaps because he is black-skinned.

Desdemona again pleads for Otello to forgive Cassio. Otello, filled with emotion, dismisses her. (At this moment, Otello’s steely tenor voice as well as his menacing physical presence should make the character’s murderous rage seem both plausible and terrifying.)

In 1884, three years before its premier, Verdi continued to refer to Otello as his “chocolate project.” Racism and associated prejudices are definitive patent elements at the forefront of Shakespeare’s drama. Shakespeare’s references to racism are far from subtle: e.g., Iago invokes racism with crucial references to Otello’s skin color, which remain an integral aspect of the hero’s psychological decline.

Mr. Sher, the director, argues that the use of darkening makeup to suggest race has long seemed obsolete and insensitive. Therefore, the Met announced that it was breaking with past practice and purging the opera of its racial baggage: the use of blackface.

The Met’s conclusion is that the dramatic emphasis must not be about race per se, but rather on the hero’s otherness, suggesting the impossibility of his assimilation into an alien society. True! But tampering with the essence of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is nothing short of arrogant blasphemy — a crime against artistic integrity — that of Shakespeare!

Iago’s assault on the great hero grows more intense. Otello’s suspicions become more intense. He concludes that infidelity is the greatest of betrayals and envisions the end of his glory. Shakespeare wrote: “Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars that make ambition virtue.”

In Verdi: Ora e per sempre addio, sante memorie. (“Farewell to sacred memories and thoughts.”)

In a fiery climax, Otello proclaims, E la gloria d’Otello, al quest al fin (“The glory of Otello has ended.”)

The scene concludes, a frenzied Otello demands proof of Desdemona’s infidelity.

The scheming Iago is unrelenting as he continues his assault on Otello to convince him that Cassio is Desdemona’s lover. He recalls that he recently watched Cassio while he was sleeping. While lost in dreams, Cassio spoke of his yearning for Desdemona, and in a moment of somniloquy, he called to Desdemona, “Gentle Desdemona, hide our love.”

The Christianized Moor slowly becomes transformed into a savage, frantic animal. He bursts into frenzied screams of “sangue” — a craving for a bloody revenge as punishment for Desdemona’s sins.

Otello and Iago unite in common purpose as they call upon the heavens for justice and vow never to relent until the guilty has been punished.

In Shakespeare, the prose is: “Arise black vengeance from thy hollow cell.” In Verdi, heightened passions rise to an almost unbearable intensity in the fiery duet, “Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro (“I swear by the marble heavens.”)

Iago had appealed to Desdemona’s compassion and convinced her to plead with Otello to secure a pardon for Cassio and restore his rank of captain following the entanglement of the drunken melee.

Desdemona is unaware that Iago had been poisoning Otello’s mind and that he has convinced Otello that Desdemona is Cassio’s paramour.

Desdemona and Otello meet in a hall of the castle. Almost immediately, the disingenuous Desdemona continues to urge Otello to pardon Cassio, an unrelenting persistence that is equivalent to sealing her coffin.

At first, Otello and Desdemona exchange innocent pleasantries, but Otello cannot hide the kindling of his inner rage. As Desdemona again persists in requesting Cassio’s pardon, suspicion arises.

However, Otello seeks the handkerchief which Desdemona is unable to produce. He concludes again that he has proof of Desdemona’s infidelity, since Iago had convinced Otello that he saw the handkerchief in Cassio’s hands.

As their confrontation and exchange becomes more intense, Otello loses control of himself. He savagely condemns Desdemona’s betrayal, what he calls the blackest of crimes.

Otello turns from wrath to cool irony as he leads Desdemona from the hall. He is suffocating. He screams like a raving maniac and curses Desdemona, quella vil cortigiana, e la sposa d’Otello (“Otello’s wife is a vile courtesan.”)

Alone, Otello expresses remorse, unable to cope with the pain and shame that have overcome him: the grief occasioned by her falseness is unendurable. He vows to secure a confession from Desdemona. He vows to find proof of her crime. He vows that Desdemona will die for her sins!

As pre-planned, Iago brings Cassio to the hall. While they converse, Otello eavesdrops, but he is able to overhear much of their conversation, although some elements are faintly heard by Otello and misunderstood. Iago prods Cassio to relate his amorous triumphs. Otello mistakenly believes that Cassio is raving about his adventures with Desdemona.

Iago holds the handkerchief behind his back for Otello to see — the smoking gun! At last, proof! Treachery! Unfortunately, Mr. Antonenko has a tendency to express his hyper emotions with bulging and rolling eyes, a style particularly prevalent in old Russian silent movies.

Trumpets blare to announce the arrival of the Venetian ambassadors. Otello emerges from hiding and agrees with Iago’s suggestion that he must kill Desdemona through suffocation. As he departs, he appoints Iago his new captain.

The former tenderness and intimacy experienced by Otello and Desdemona transforms into psychological torment, bordering on physical violence.

Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador, has arrived with orders from the Venetian Senate that recalls Otello as governor; and in his place, Cassio has been appointed the new governor of Cyprus.

Otello becomes humiliated. He vents the fury of his defeat by insulting Desdemona. He then physically hurls her to the ground. A weeping Desdemona, confused and confounded by her present dilemma, prays for the return of their past bliss.

Otello becomes overwhelmed by a seizure of epilepsy and orders everyone to depart.

As Desdemona leaves, Otello erupts into a violent outburst and curses her: Anima mia, ti malidico (“My love, I curse you.”)

Otello lies prostrate on the ground, unable to flee from his inner demons. Iago stands over the Moor, gloating in victory.

Trumpet fanfares combine with the crowds hailing Otello:

Evviva Otello! Gloria al Leon di Venezia. (“Hail Otello, Glory to the Lion of Venice”)

A victorious Iago proclaims ironically: Ecco il Leon (“Here is your Lion.”)

Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva was superb in Acts III, IV. Her portrayal of a pathetic, confounded Desdemona touched the listener’s soul; she delivered an intelligently nuanced and lush and aching lyricism, all gorgeously expressed by her sumptuous vocal instrument.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, there is a sense of foreboding as Desdemona senses death. She sings the Willow Song, which she once learned from her mother’s maid: it is a recollection of a young woman’s fate after being spurned by her lover and left to die. Subsequently she prays to the Virgin Mary: a prayer for the sinner, for the innocent, for the oppressed, weak, and mercy for the powerful.

Otello enters Desdemona’s bedroom through a secret door. He awakens Desdemona to confirm that she has said her evening prayers; ironically, the Christianized Moor seeks assurance that Desdemona prayed for forgiveness for her sins before he kills her.

He again accuses Desdemona of being Cassio’s paramour.

In a final burst of psychopathic monomaniacy he smothers Desdemona with a pillow.

Outside, Venetian nobles hear the faint cries of the dying Desdemona and rush into the bedroom. Otello attempts to justify his murder of Desdemona by proclaiming that Iago told him that she was Cassio’s paramour. But he quickly learns that Iago was lying to him. Iago hurriedly exits, pursued by soldiers.

Otello forgives the dead Desdemona, her name literally meaning born under an evil star.

He unsheathes a dagger and stand before the nobles, amazed that no one fears him: Niun mi

He then stabs himself, fatally.

As the hero takes his last breath he draws himself closer to the dead Desdemona. In Shakespeare, the eloquent final prose is: “I kissed thee, ere I kill’d thee; no way but this – Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

But Verdi’s shimmering music of the Kiss, first heard in the rapturous music of the love duet now underscores the heartbreaking horror of Desdemona’s murder, the tragedy etched in Otello’s last dying words: Un bacio, un bacio ancora…un altro bacio. (“A kiss, another kiss, one more kiss.”)

In this tragedy of the death of love, and the death of lovers, Otello and Desdemona, became the innocent victims, of Iago’s evil and treachery.

— Burton D. Fisher, October 17, 2015

Principal Lecturer: Opera Journeys’ Showcase Series and Biographies in Music Series

Educator, historian and author of Opera Journeys’ Publications:

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