No opera composer turned to William Shakespeare more often than Giuseppe Verdi, who composed three works, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on the Bard’s plays. But if it hadn’t been for the persistence of his publisher Ricordi and would-be librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi might well have stopped at one. He had to be coaxed out of a post-Aida retirement to write Otello, which finally premiered in 1887, sixteen years later.
But Otello was worth waiting for. A masterpiece, a thorough integration of music, words and drama that, astoundingly, manages to illuminate the original work—itself an unequalled masterpiece—on which it is based.
Programme notes from the upcoming Opera Hong Kong production of Otello, republished with permission. Otello runs at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre 13-16 October.
Verdi uses all of music’s power to do what words cannot. The opera sucks the audience in with the very first notes, which portray a violent storm. The people of sixteenth-century Cyprus—most of them—wait desperately for the return of their general Otello from a sea battle against the Ottomans. When he strides in with an exultant Esulate, “Rejoice”, the relief is palpable.
Verdi uses all of music’s power to do what words cannot.
But not for everyone. Iago, passed over by Otello for promotion, plots against him, while Roderigo, a feckless courtier, pines for Otello’s young Venetian wife Desdemona. The story is by now well-known: Iago manipulates Otello by inventing an affair between Desdemona and his rival Cassio. Otello fatally falls prey to the idra fosca—Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster”—of jealousy. A handkerchief is famously the instrument of his undoing.
But the story has, if anything, become even more relevant with the passage of time. Otello is a “moor”, an outsider and immigrant in a European society that feels under threat. His abilities are respected but he is himself never quite accepted; he can well believe his Venetian wife might abandon him for one of her own kind. Iago is the archetypal political insider who preys upon more ethical leaders’ weaknesses for personal gain. Desdemona is rebelling against a world run by men. In Otello, Desdemona and Iago we can see ourselves as if in a mirror.
Boito’s masterful libretto echoes Shakespeare’s text: “She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d, and I loved her that she did pity them”, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy”, and “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this; killing myself, to die upon a kiss” are all there, almost word for word. While Boito is faithful to the words, Verdi takes the emotions and psychology and intensifies them to the point where they are almost painful. The first act love duet Già nella la notte densa swells with a passion that is both physical and romantic. Later, Iago’s poisonous ideas insinuate themselves into Otello’s head—and ours—with the slipperiness of a serpent. When Otello tells Desdemona in Act III that “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice that married with Otello”, the music hits us as physically as he strikes her.
On this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, one cannot but think that he would have been gratified at how his masterwork inspired another.
Verdi’s genius in Otello is the portrayal of psychology as well as emotion through music. We feel, not just see and hear, Otello coming apart at the seams. “Ecco il Leone!”—“And behold your lion!”—cries Iago derisively as Otello, convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, falls to the ground at the close of Act III.
Verdi’s—and it must be said, Boito’s—Otello is more an interpretation, at once respectful yet innovative and powerful, of the Shakespeare play than an adaption into a different medium. On this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, one cannot but think that he would have been gratified at how his masterwork inspired another.