Upon the completion of the opera, preparations for the initial performance were conducted in absolute secrecy and Verdi reserved the right to cancel the premiere up to the last minute. Verdi need not have worried: Otello's debut proved to be a resounding success. The audience's enthusiasm for Verdi was shown by the 20 curtain calls that he took at the end of the opera. Further stagings of Otello soon followed at leading theatres throughout Europe and America.
Enrico Caruso was studying Otello when death claimed him unexpectedly in 1921, thus thwarting the Metropolitan Opera company's plans to stage the opera as a new vehicle for their star tenor. Nowadays, Plácido Domingo has appeared in more video productions of the opera than any other tenor. He has recorded the complete role twice, too, on CD. Many consider Domingo to be the definitive modern Otello, although his smooth, dark-hued voice lacks the heroic power and clarion ring of such great early performers of the part as Tamagno or Zenatello. (Zenatello sang the Moor more than 300 times in a career stretching from 1899 to 1933)
A long lineage of renowned baritones have sung Iago since 1887. Among them: Victor Maurel (the role's first exponent), Mattia Battistini, Mario Ancona, Antonio Scotti, Titta Ruffo, Pasquale Amato, Carlo Galeffi and Lawrence Tibbett. Leading post-war exponents of the part have included Giuseppe Valdengo, Robert Merrill, Tito Gobbi, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris. As for Desdemona, too many top-class lyric sopranos have undertaken the role to list here.
Otello has been recorded complete a number of times since the Second World War; but most critics would contend that the recording made of a 1947 radio broadcast of the opera, conducted with exciting verve and precision by Arturo Toscanini and featuring such solid singers as Herva Nelli, Ramón Vinay and Giuseppe Valdengo, is the best version of them all. It has been released on commercial LPs and is available in a digitally remastered form on CD.
Individual arias, duets and scenes from Otello have been committed to disc by many celebrated tenors, baritones and sopranos since acceptable recording technology was first developed in the early 1900s. The best of these recordings are available on CD reissues and make for fascinating comparative listening.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, February 5, 1887|
(Conductor: Franco Faccio)
|Otello, a Moorish general||tenor||Francesco Tamagno|
|Desdemona, his wife||soprano||Romilda Pantaleoni|
|Iago, Otello's ensign||baritone||Victor Maurel|
|Emilia, wife of Iago and maid of Desdemona||mezzo-soprano||Ginevra Petrovich|
|Cassio, Otello's captain||tenor||Giovanni Paroli|
|Roderigo, a gentleman of Venice||tenor||Vincenzo Fornari|
|Lodovico, ambassador of the Venetian republic||bass||Francesco Navarrini|
|Montano, former Governor of Cyprus||bass||Napoleone Limonta|
|A herald||bass||Angelo Lagomarsino|
|Chorus: Venetian soldiers and sailors; and Cypriot townsfolk and children|
On a stormy night, the people of Cyprus anxiously await the arrival of the new governor, Otello, from the battle with the Turks (Chorus, Montana, Cassio, Jago, Roderigo: "Una vela! Una vela!" - "A sail! Jubilation!"). Otello arrives safely and announces that the Turkish fleet has been destroyed, and the Cypriots cheer (Otello, chorus: "Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano").
Otello's ensign, Jago, offers to help a young Venetian gentleman Roderigo in his seduction of Othello's wife Desdemona, because he (Jago) wants revenge against the Moor (Jago, Roderigo: "Roderigo, ebben che pensi?"). Otello has appointed Cassio to be the captain of the navy, a position that Jago hoped to have. The people of Cyprus celebrate the navy's safe return by lighting a bonfire (Chorus: "Fuoco di gioia!" - "Fire of joy").
In the tavern, Jago proposes a toast to Otello and his wife, while Cassio fulsomely praises Desdemona (Jago, Cassio, Chorus, Roderigo: "Roderigo, beviam!"). Jago offers Cassio wine, but Cassio says he has had enough. Jago pressures him, and when Jago offers a toast to Otello and Desdemona, Cassio gives in. Jago sings a drinking song and continues to pour Cassio wine (Jago, Cassio, Roderigo, chorus: "Inaffia l'ugola!" - "Wet your throat").
Montano enters and calls for Cassio to begin his watch, but he is surprised to find Cassio drunk and barely able to stand upright. To Montano's surprise, Jago explains that this is how Cassio spends every evening. Roderigo laughs at Cassio's drunkenness and Cassio attacks him. Montano tells Cassio to refrain, but Cassio draws his sword and threatens to crack open Montano's head (Montano, Cassio, Jago, Roderigo, chorus: "Capitano, v’attende la fazione ai baluardi"). Cassio and Montano begin to duel, and Jago sends Roderigo to call the alarm. Cassio wounds Montano as Otello enters and orders them to lower their swords.
Otello asks "honest Jago" to explain how the duel began, but Jago says he doesn't know. Otello then turns to Cassio, who feels embarrassed and cannot excuse his actions. When Otello discovers that Montano is wounded, he becomes enraged. Desdemona enters, and, upon seeing that his bride's rest has been disturbed, Otello declares that Cassio is no longer Captain (Otello, Jago, Cassio, Montano : "Abbasso le spade").
The Cypriots leave Otello alone with Desdemona. Together Otello and Desdemona recall why they fell in love. They kiss and then walk back to the castle (Otello, Desdemona: "Gia nella notte densa" - "Already in the dense night").
Jago suggests Cassio should ask Desdemona to talk to Otello about his demotion, because Desdemona can influence her husband to reinstate him (Jago, Cassio: "Non ti crucciar"). Desdemona and Emilia enter, and Cassio begins to plead with Desdemona. Jago watches them and proclaims his evil Credo ("Credo in un Dio crudel" - "I believe in a cruel God").
Otello enters; Jago, pretending not to notice him, says that he is deeply trouble. Otello asks what's wrong, and Jago responds by giving vague answers. Finally he hints that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Otello feels himself becoming jealous, but he wants proof of Desdemona's betrayal first (Jago, Otello: "Cio m’accora.. che parli?").
A crowd of children, sailors, and Cypriots encircles Desdemona, praising her beauty and purity (Chorus, Jago, children, Desdemona, Otello: "Dove guardi splendono raggi"). They leave her gifts and wish her happiness before leaving.
Desdemona carries Cassio's request for reinstatement to Otello. Otello sourly tells her to ask him another time, and says he has a headache. Desdemona wraps his head in a handkerchief Otello once gave her, linen embroidered with strawberries. Otello throws it to the ground and says he doesn't need it (Desdemona, Otello: "D'un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno"). Emilia picks up the handkerchief. Desdemona asks for Otello's forgiveness. Aside, Jago demands that Emilia give him the handkerchief. When she refuses, Jago takes it from her.
Otello dismisses the others, and sings that he now believes that Desdemona may be deceiving him (Otello: "Ora è per sempre addio"). Jago returns, and the jealous Otello demands proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Jago says that once, when he and Cassio were sleeping in the same room, he heard Cassio talking to Desdemona in a dream. In the dream, says Jago, Cassio told Desdemona that they must be careful to conceal their love (Iago: "Era la notte, Cassio dormia" - "It was night, Cassio was sleeping"). Jago says that dreams don't prove anything, but remarks that he saw Cassio carrying Desdemona's strawberry-embroidered handkerchief just the day before. Together, Otello and Jago swear vengeance on Desdemona (Otello, Iago: "Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro" - "Yes, by the marble heavens I swear").
Jago explains to Otello that he will lure Cassio here and talk with him while Otello watches, hidden. He leaves to go get Cassio (Otello, Jago: "Continua, Qui trarro Cassio").
Desdemona enters and reminds Otello of Cassio's request. Otello says that he still has a headache, and asks her to wrap her handkerchief around his head. When Desdemona produces a different handkerchief, Otello demands the one with strawberries. When she says she does not have it, Otello says that it was a talisman, and troubles will befall her if she loses it. Desdemona says that he is trying to ignore Cassio's plea, and as she asks him about Cassio, he demands the handkerchief ever more insistently (Desdemona, Otello: "Dio ti giocondi, o sposo"). Desdemona protests that she is faithful; Otello sends her away (Desdemona, Otello: "Esterrefatta fisso").
Otello laments his fate ("Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti I mali" - "God, you could have lashed at me" ) when Jago calls out "Cassio is here!" Otello hides as Jago and Cassio enter. Cassio says he had hoped to see Desdemona here, for he wanted to know whether she had been successful with Otello (Jago, Cassio, Otello: "Vieni; l’aula e deserta"). Jago asks him to tell of his adventures with that woman. Cassio asks which woman, and, softly, so that Otello cannot hear, Jago says "Bianca" (the name of Cassio's real-life lover). Cassio laughs about his romantic adventures; Otello assumes he is talking about Desdemona. Jago also shows that Cassio has the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief, which Jago had previously hidden in Cassio's house (Jago, Cassio, Otello: "E intanto, giacche non si stanca mai").
Bugles sound, announcing the arrival of the Venetian ambassador. Jago warns Cassio that he should leave unless he wants to see Otello. Cassio exits, and Otello determines to kill his wife by suffocating her in her bed, while Jago will take care of Cassio.
Lodovico, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, and other dignitaries enter, noting Cassio's absence. Jago tells him that Cassio is out of favor, and Desdemona says that he will soon be restored. Jago explains to the puzzled Lodovico that perhaps Cassio's restoration is her wish. Desdemona says that it is, for she has quite an affection for him. Otello calls her a demon and almost strikes her violently but held by Lodovico. Otello then calls for Cassio (Lodovico, Otello, Desdemona, Emilia, Jago, chorus: "Il Doge ed il Senato salutano"). Cassio enters and Otello reads a letter from the Doge, announcing that he (Otello) has been called back to Venice and Cassio is the new Duke of Cyprus. Enraged, Otello throws Desdemona to the ground (Otello, Roderigo, Jago, Cassio, Lodovico: "Messeri!... Il Doge..." - "Gentlemen! The Doge..." )
Desdemona on the ground, laments ("A terra! … si … nel livido fango"). Emilia and Lodovico comfort Desdemona. Aside, Jago tells Otello that tonight is the night to take revenge. Jago then secretly tells Roderigo that the only way to prevent Desdemona from leaving is for the new Duke to die, and arranges for Roderigo to kill Cassio that night. Otello orders everyone to leave. Desdemona goes to comfort him, but Lodovico drags her away as Otello curses her (Emilia, Cassio, Desdemona, Roderigo, Lodovico, Jago, Otello, chorus: "Quell’innocente un fremito"). Otello raves about the handkerchief, then collapses. Jago presses Otello's forehead with his heel, then walks away. Outside the crowd of Cypriots calls out victory and glory for Otello (Otello, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, Roderigo, Lodovico, Jago, chorus: "Fuggite!").
Desdemona and Emilia are preparing for bed. Desdemona asks Emilia to put out the bridal gown she used on her wedding day, and says that if she dies, she wants to be buried in it. Emilia tells not to talk about such things. Desdemona recalls how her mother had a servant named Barbara, who fell in love with a man but went mad when he left her (Desdemona: "Mia madre aveva una povera ancella" - "Willow Song") ; (Desdemona, Emilia: "Piangea cantando nell’erma landa"). After Emilia leaves, Desdemona prays ("Ave Maria") and then falls asleep.
Silently, Otello enters, with a sword. He kisses his wife three times; she awakens. Otello asks her if she has prayed tonight, because he does not want to kill her soul. She asks God for mercy, both for her and for Otello. Otello accuses her of sin, saying that he must kill her because she loves Cassio. Desdemona denies it and asks that he summon Cassio on her behalf. Otello says that Cassio is already dead. Desdemona pleads for mercy, but Otello tells her it's too late for that and strangles her (Otello, Desdemona: "Diceste questa sera le vostre preci").
Emilia knocks at the door, announcing that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona softly calls out that she has been unjustly accused, and then dies. Emilia calls Otello a murderer; he retorts that Jago gave him proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Otello begins to threaten Emilia, who calls for help. Jago, Cassio, and Lodovico enter. Emilia demands that Jago deny Otello's accusation; he refuses. Otello says that the handkerchief Desdemona gave to Cassio is proof enough. Emilia, horrified, explains that Jago had stolen the handkerchief; Cassio corroborates her story. Montano enters and says that Roderigo, with his dying breath, has revealed Jago's plan. Iago, brandishing his sword, runs away (Emilia, Otello, Desdemona, Cassio, Jago, Lodovico, Montano: "Aprite! Aprite!" - "Open up!").
After he realizes what has happened, Otello grieves over Desdemona's death. He then draws a dagger from his robe and stabs himself. Others try to stop him but it is too late. Before he dies, he drags himself next to his wife and kisses her. He lies dead next to Desdemona (Otello, Cassio, Lodovico, Montano: "Niun mi tema" - "That none fear me").
In the drinking song that follows, Verdi makes use of the bassoons and other low instruments in order to represent the internal effects of alcohol upon Cassio. However, this is gradually eclipsed by the merry themes which follow in the orchestra and chorus ("Chi all'esca ha morso"). The merriment of the celebrations suddenly become frantic, as Cassio challenges Montano to a duel. The full orchestra builds up to a climax as they fight whilst Iago orders Roderigo to go and alert the entire town until the ordeal is interrupted by a loud statement made by the entering Otello.
Accented notes in the orchestra, particularly in the strings, reflect the annoyance of Otello at having his sleep disturbed. Notes played piano and pizzacato by the strings accompany Iago's account of the events, giving his account a feeling of false remorse and unhappiness. Upon Otello's orders, the disturbed islanders return to their homes, accompanied by legato notes in the upper strings and woodwinds depicting the calm that has once more been reestablished.
The great love duet which ends the act commences with a statement from Otello accompanied by cellos playing pianissimo. Desdemona's reply to him is accompanied by the violins and violas, providing a contrast to the statements made by Otello previously. When the duet proper starts ("Quando narravi"), sixteenth notes played by the harp and quarter notes played by the horns and bassoons give the music a sense of motion as Desdemona describes the narrations that Otello had given her about his life. As Otello commences to speak about how he narrated the battles in which he fought, thirty-second notes in the strings in addition to the inclusion of the lower brass instruments reflect the violent topics of Otello's previous narration. However, upon Desdemona's next vocal entrance several bars later, this immense energy is translated to a overall sense of the passion of the two lover's love for each other through the use of some of the more expressive wind instruments such as the English Horn. The duet continues to build up in passion until its climax, the appearance of the "kiss" theme which reappears twice more in the Opera near the end. After this, the music begins to tone down until the act ends with a trill in two of the first violins and a plucked chord on the harp.
Jago's brief conversation with Cassio is marked by the theme from the acts introduction, making Iago appear strangely affable when he suggests that Cassio consult Desdemona; however, as before, an underlying dark tone remains.
Upon Cassio's exit, this dark tone rapidly becomes predominant as the gestures which opened the act repeat, but this time, will a full string and woodwind section. The famous aria that follows ("Credo in un Dio crudel") is marked by trills in the lowest clarinet register and quick yet powerfully accented notes played by the full orchestra at several intervals that portray the evil of Iago to its fullest extent.
Nevertheless, Jago's evil reverie is interrupted by the appearance of Desdemona and Cassio. The urgency felt by Jago in the situation is reflected in the staccato eight notes in the strings which accompany his witnessing of the situation. However, upon Otello's entry the music suddenly becomes much calmer. Otello's response to Jago's question about the preexisting relationship between Cassio and Desdemona is a typical love melody which would have been standard in an earlier Verdi opera, yet it lacks the passion that would typically accompany it and is cut short by Iago's interjection. Otello's annoyance with Iago for not directly stating his "suspicions" is suddenly reflected by an outburst in the orchestra. This is the second instance in the opera in which Otello's potential anger has been made apparent. As Jago gives the equivalent of the famous Shakespearean line from the play ("E un'idra fosca), the low strings and woodwinds create a dark tone during this scene.
This darkness, however is interrupted by the appearance of a chorus. The chorus is accompanied by folk instruments such as the mandolin and guitar in order to give the music a more authentic feel. However, the music is slow and intentionally sweet in quality, reflecting the kind innocence of Desdemona.
The quartet that follows the episode begins with a similarly sweet statement by Desdemona, asking for Otello to forgive her is she has done anything. This is overshadowed by the aside brooding of Otello about his perception of her guilt, which is marked by shorter, more separated phrases in the strings. Meanwhile, as Jago and Emilia join into the music with their quarrel, the music darkens until it is strangely sad towards the end, even when the orchestral accompaniment ends. After the end of the quartet proper, the music once again regains its sweet nature, as Desdemona's farewell statements are accompanied by the violins and oboe, however soon after her departure, it rapidly darkens, Otello broods to the incessant notes of the bassoons and lower violin statements. However, this is immediately transferred into an anger towards Jago which is reflected in the accented statements made by the full orchestra. Otello's distressed is reflected by his farewell to fame and glory ("Ora e per sempre addio"). Repeated lower chords on the harp along with triplet movement in the lower strings give the portion a dark tone, despite the majestic interludes of the brass and the melody (which would, on its own, be cheerful).
During Jago's untruthful account of Cassio's dream, strings and high woodwind instruments are used in order to create a dream-like atmosphere in the music. Descending chromatic scales both add to this atmosphere and maintain the dark overall tone which has pervaded.
The act ends with an energetic finale in which Jago and Otello swear to have vengeance. The energy of this final duet is provided by the full orchestra, which accompanies it.
Desdemona's appearance in the act is once again accompanied by a sweet melody, however, this is quickly subdued as Otello, in his frustration, calls her a "vile cortegiana" at which point the anger of Otello is once again portrayed by a full orchestra with brass. The music that accompanies Desdemona's reaction to this sudden outburst is sad, yet the woodwinds give it a oddly noble character, which again reaffirms her overall innocence.
After Desdemona's departure, Jago stages an interrogation of Cassio in front of Otello. This interrogation takes the form of a friendly conversation and is accompanied by jocular sixteenth note runs in the woodwinds, reflecting the joy of Cassio about his love interest with the woman Bianca. This happily playful tone is contrasted with the dark asides of the watching Otello. Throughout this scene, the dark tone pervades.
The full scene that follows is grand in the orchestration, with abundant use of brass throughout. However, following Otello's angry outbursts near the end, it quickly becomes dark and sad after Otello strikes Desdemona.
After the departure of all of the members of the scene, the turmoil within Otello's mind is reflected by the restlessness of the orchestra, which becomes increasingly violent as he falls into his trance. The dark singing of the triumphant Jago is contrasted with the majestic brass and external choral interjections praising Otello.
In the brief recitativo between Desdemona and Emilia which begins the act, the despairing tone begun in the introduction continues.
The "Willow Song" which follows is marked by an increasing orchestral sound, with woodwinds and strings adding to it, yet what compounds the sadness of the piece is the wail-like cries of "Salce" made by Desdemona followed by similarly despairing, yet softer "echoes" played by the English horn. Near the end of the song, Desdemona's fear, which has been hidden up to this point by a veil of sadness, is made apparent; she mistakes the noise of the wind for that of an intruder. The orchestra immediately builds to a fortissimo, reflecting the genuine worries possessed by Desdemona. The music that gradually lessens with the comforting of Emilia and returns for a final repetition of the theme of the "Willow Song".
Afterwards, Desdemona begins to bid Emilia adieu. This goodbye is initially accompanied by repeated notes on the lower woodwinds and strings such as those in the introduction of the act but in a much more noticeable and dominating manner. This reflects the increasing expectation of Desdemona of her death. Initially, she attempts to keep these feelings to herself, but the orchestra reveals her increasing inner thoughts. These feelings finally reach a point at which they can no longer be contained and Desdemona lets out a loud passionate cry of goodbye to Emilia, one that is reinforced by the full orchestral accompaniment.
Following Emilia's departure, Desdemona prays. Like many of Desdemona's earlier vocal appearances in the opera, these prayers contain a sweet nature, reflecting, for the final time, the innocence of the wrongly accused woman. The melody within the strings that appears later in the prayer scene adds significantly to the poignancy of the situation.
After she goes to bed, a sinister theme appears in the string bass, depicting Otello's entrance. This effectively replaces the sad tone which was present throughout the first portions with the dark one which marked much of the second and third acts. The low theme begins very slowly, but gradually accelerates until there is a sudden outburst with the full orchestra. However, soon afterwards, the music drops down to a soft tremolo in the strings. Above this, a theme that evokes Otello's longing for Desdemona appears in the English horn and bassoons. This theme builds up until it finally gives way to the "kiss" theme from Act 1, as Otello embraces the sleeping Desdemona. However this second appearance of the theme is even more passionate than the first one and adds to the poignancy of the tragedy.
Once Desdemona awakens, the music retreats to the theme that accompanied Otello's entrance, but with a more threatening feel this time as brass instruments are added. As Otello demands that Desdemona confess, the music accelerates, reaching a climax at the point where Desdemona is strangled. After this, though the power of the orchestra lessens, it maintains its darkness throughout the scene of Emilia's discovery of the murder and Desdemona's final death.
The scene with that follows is marked by a theme that is somewhat majestic and proud, however, as it is limited to the woodwinds, it seems weak. This reflects the loss of power and honor that have faced Otello.
As Otello laments his actions to the theme of his longing, he decides to commit suicide. Just before he dies, the orchestra plays the "kiss" motif one final time before the opera ends.
The opera "Otello" is scored for the following instruments:
In the orchestra: 3 flutes (the third doubles as a piccolo), 2 oboes, 1 english horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 harp, percussion (timpani, cymbals, bass drum, gong), strings (violin I and II, viola, cello, double bass)
(Otello, Desdemona, Jago)
Opera House and Orchestra
|1947|| Ramon Vinay,|
| Arturo Toscanini,|
NBC Symphony Orchestra and chorus
| Audio CD: Guild Historical |
Audio CD: Naxos Historical
|1960|| Jon Vickers,|
| Tullio Serafin,|
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus
| Audio CD: RCA Victor |
|1961|| Mario del Monaco,|
| Herbert von Karajan,|
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
| Audio CD: Decca |
|1973|| Jon Vickers,|
| Herbert von Karajan,|
Berlin Philharmonic and choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
| DVD: Deutsche Grammophon |
Audio CD on EMI
|1978|| Placido Domingo,|
| James Levine, |
National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
| Audio CD: RCA|
|1986|| Plácido Domingo,|
| Lorin Maazel, |
La Scala orchestra and chorus
(Film - directed by Franco Zeffirelli)
| DVD: MGM |
Cat: 0 27616 88420 6
(Otello (1986 film))
|1987|| Luciano Pavarotti,|
Kiri Te Kanawa,
| Georg Solti, |
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio Cd: Decca|
|1992|| Plácido Domingo,|
Kiri Te Kanawa,
| Georg Solti,|
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra
| DVD: Kultur Video |
Cat: 0 32031 14929 8
|1994|| Plácido Domingo,|
| Myung-Whun Chung,|
| Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon |
Cat: 439 805-2
|1995|| Plácido Domingo,|
| James Levine,|
Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
| DVD: Deutsche Grammophon |
Cat: 00440 073 0929
|2001|| Plácido Domingo,|
| Riccardo Muti,|
La Scala orchestra and chorus
| DVD: Tdk DVD Video |
Cat: 8 2412100019 6
Note: "Cat:" is short for catalogue number by the label company.