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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Verdi Project: Otello

Verdi's penultimate opera was also the end of his 13-year retirement.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
There aren't many great Otellos so here's a lot of images of one: Anders Antonenko.
Photo © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
Verdi’s Otello is a colossus  of the Italian repertory, and one of the finest adaptations of Shakespeare to another medium. A triumph, it was Verdi's first opera in 13 years, and announced his final great creative partnership with librettist Arrigo Boito.

Although the Requiem was a success in 1874, the remainder of the decade saw no new operas as the composer retired to his country estate at Sant'Agata. And then, in 1879, Boito sought out Verdi. He was a fiery young composer whose first opera Mefistofele finally found success after heavy revisions. (His second, the Rome-set drama Nerone was never finished.) They had met before, when Boito had inadvertently insulted the older composer in 1863.

Boito had a canny proposal: to revise and revive Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, an opera that was a dismal failure in 1857. Two years later, the new Simon was a modest success, and this revised version has become a pillar of the standard repertory. But this was just the opening act: Boito knew that Verdi wanted to set another Shakespeare play as an opera. He had tinkered with King Lear in the past but in Verdi's words, he "could not face the scene on the heath." Boito suggested an idea Verdi had already been considering: Otello.

The joint project was originally called Iago. Rossini's version of Otello was still in the repertory, and Verdi did not want to compete with Rossini. a composer he respected. Boito threw out the Rossini libretto (which never leaves the city of Venice) and condensed Shakespeare's text, while remaining (mostly) faithful to it. Verdi's music was written with equal density and concision, amplifying the emotions of the original work and making Otello's fall into jealousy, madness, murder and suicide one of (dare I say it) Wagnerian scale.

The score of Otello was criticized at the time of its premiere for making use of a similar system to Wagner's leitmotif technique, but the opera stands on its own. Verdi wrote here in a dense and contrapuntal style, making masterful use of the orchestra and placing great demands on the singers. There are no set pieces and very few moments that can be called a proper aria but the memorable musical moments are there throughout the work.

With the necessity of pure, powerful volume in certain scenes and the dramatic subtlety of Shakespeare, the title role is a pinnacle of the Italian repertory, an incredibly complex character. Great Otellos are few and far between and can be counted on one hand: Leo Slezak, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and now, Anders Antonenko, who in 2016 made history at the Metropolitan Opera when he refused to sing the role wearing the traditional black-face or walnut stain to appear "Moorish."

Boito ditched Shakespeare's first act in favor of the storm scene, a crash and bang of orchestral power and a tempest whipped up with offstage trumpets, a wind machine and virtuoso playing from the heavy brass. Otello's lung-busting entrance is one of the most treacherous moments in opera, where the tenor must for a moment be larger than life and sing with clean, unadulterated power. "Esultate!" he sings, stopping the action in its tracks. Otello is bigger than anything: the storm, the chorus, the ship, a towering colossus of heroism. His path from this point arcs only downward.

Verdi then hits the listener with tunes: the "Fuoco di gioia" chorus, Iago's drinking song and a concluding duet between Otello and Desdemona showing their tender love. From here, things sour rapidly as Iago, with help from a handkerchief, goes to work on Otello's paranoia and self-doubt, destroying his mind with relentless assaults over the next two acts. In an audience aside, the baritone takes time for a monologue that is not in Shakespeare: the "Credo", in which he stares his belief in a "cruel God" as justification for his despicable actions. And then he really goes to work on Otello, who starts the spiral into madness as the curtain falls.

Otello's collapse is complete in the third act, as he sees the "evidence" of the missing handkerchief. Things reach a crisis point with a visit from the Venetian ambassador to Cyprus that sees Otello throw his wife to the floor in a rage, in front of the entire court. This leads to a great ensemble in which Verdi juggles all the characters and their relevant emotions as the orchestra thunders. At its close, Otello faints dead away onstage. With his boot-heel on the fallen hero's head, Iago gloats: "Ecco il Leone!"

If Act III is all intensity, Act IV is harrowing denouement. Desdemona knows she is going to die, and sings two arias: the "Willow" song from the original play and an Ave Maria that was Verdi and Boito's addition. The final murder scene is harrowing and brutal in its brevity. Otello's suicide, sung to the words of Shakespeare and the melody of his earlier love duet with Desdemona, leaves the audience utterly devastated.
Watch Otello (Jon Vickers) completely lose it in this 1970s 
video from the Metropolitan Opera.

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