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An exploration of the music of Verdi's monumental Otello.
Act I: Otello's Entrance: Esultate! (Rejoice!)
The opera opens with a thunderstorm, vividly depicted by the orchestra. The people of Cyprus watch in terror as Otello's ship approaches through the darkness and the wind. Everyone prays that it will land safely, except Iago, who wishes it to the bottom of the sea. Finally, the ship makes it to port, battered, but safe.
Now Otello makes what is surely the most magnificent entrance in opera, as he comes ashore to announce that he has defeated the Turks in battle.
The glory of the Muslims is buried in the deep.
With heaven's help we are victorious.
What our arms spared, the sea and storm have vanquished.
Musicologist James Hepokoski comments on this riveting moment:
it is only here – and fleetingly – that we perceive an unflawed hero. Otello enters ... as a demigod, produced out of the raging struggle of the earth, the air, and the water ... By sheer force Otello's music grasps, bends, and resolves music heard in the storm.
Mario del Monaco is Otello in this 1958 RAI telecast, conducted by Tullio Serafin.
Act I Love Duet Già Nella Notte Densa (Now in the dark of night )
Otello and his wife Desdemona are finally alone together. The victory celebrations have ended. Otello has broken up a brawl and sent everyone home. Now, the night is quiet, and peace is at hand.
Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor
Now in the dark of night every sound has been silenced.
My heart's tumult has been calmed by your touch.
Let war thunder. Let the world be engulfed.
If after every terrible tempest comes such immense love!
The couple recall how they met and how Otello entranced Desdemona with stories of his turbulent life, valiant battles, and daring deeds,
Poi mi guidavi ai fulgidi deserti,
Then you led me to blazing deserts,
to the burning sands of your native land.
You told of the torments you had suffered
And of your chains when you were sold into slavery
Ingentilia di lagrime la storia il tuo bel viso e il labbro di sospir
When I told my story,
your lovely face softened with tears
and the glory of heaven and the stars
shone down on my darkness...
You loved me for the dangers I had passed,
and I loved you that you did pity them.
Placido Domingo is Otello, with Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona in this 2001 production from La Scala, conducted by Riccardo Muti.
Act II: Iago's Credo Credo in un Dio crudel (I believe in a cruel God)
Iago, Otello's ensign, is, in Verdi's words, the devil who sets everything in motion.
Even as the victory celebrations get underway in the first act, Iago has begun fomenting conflict: Otello has passed him over for promotion in favour of Cassio, and Iago is bent on destroying both of them.
A brilliant, artful puppetmaster, Iago whips up conflict and incites jealousy and murder, yet wins the trust of those around him. He doesn't come across as a mustache-twirling villain. He is suavely believable, as Verdi himself pointed out:
[Iago's] manner would be absent-minded, nonchalant, indifferent about everything, incredulous, witty ... a personality like that might deceive everybody, even his own wife.
Iago articulates his fury, malevolence, and self-hatred in his Credo, a dramatic soliloquy with no counterpart in Shakespeare. Its opening phrase, Credo in un Dio crudel, is a blasphemous echo of the Credo that is part of the Catholic mass (Credo in unum deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem caeli et terrae – I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.).
Credo in un Dio crudel
I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image and whom I name in my wrath.
From some vile germ of nature or some atom I was born.
I am evil because I am human.
I feel the primeval slime in me.
... whatever evil I think or do is decreed by Fate.
I believe the just man to be a mocking actor in face and heart;
that all his being is a lie,
And I believe man is fortune's fool
from the germ of the cradle to the worm of the grave.
After all this folly comes Death.
E poi?... e poi? La Morte è il Nulla, è vecchia fola il Ciel.
And then?... And then? Death is nothingness, heaven an old wives' tale.
Leo Nucci is Iago in this 2001 production from La Scala, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Nucci does not end his Credo with the fiendish laugh that has become a performance tradition (although the laugh is in neither the score nor Boito's stage instructions. The subtitles are in French.
Act II Otello and Iago's Duet
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro! Yes, by the marble heaven I swear! )
One of the most electrifying moments in the opera is the vengeance duet between Otello and Iago.
Iago's insidious hints and lies have finally all but convinced Otello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Otello swears vengeance on the couple, and Iago, ever at his service, avidly pledges to help.
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, considered one of the finest Otellos of the 20th century, is formidable in this legendary 1978 performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Cornel MacNeil is Iago, and James Levine conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Act III: Otello's Aria. Dio! mi potevi (God, you could have thrown every evil at me)
Iago's lies, Desdemona's advocacy on behalf of Cassio, and the evidence of the handkerchief have finally convinced Otello that Desdemona is unfaithful. Exhausted by grief and pain, he sings of his desolation and loss.
The first part of this aria is a series of broken, almost incoherent vocal fragments. Only as he recalls the joy that Desdemona brought him, that he has now lost (Ma, o pianto, o duol), does the music move from monotone into melody.
Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali
God, you could have thrown every evil at me, every misery and shame,
you could have made all my triumphs rubble and lies.
And I would have borne that cruel cross
of anguish and shame with patience
and submitted to the will of heaven.
Ma, o pianto, o duol
But, oh tears, oh sorrow!
The vision that gave me joy and quieted my soul
has been wrenched from me.
That sun has gone out,
that smile that filled my soul with life and happiness.
Mercy, you angel of grace with the rosy smile,
cover your holy face with the horrible mask of hell!
Ah, damnation! Let her confess the crime and then die!
Confession! The proof!
Kristian Benedikt is Otello in thie 2011 production of Lithuanian National Opera, Vilnius. Mr. Bendikt performs the role in Pacific Opera Victoria's production.
Act IV: Desdemona's Aria. La canzon del salice (The Willow Song)
Otello, who has been lashing out at Desdemona with increasing cruelty, has commanded her to go to bed and wait for him. As she prepares for bed with the help of her maid Emilia, Desdemona expresses her profound sadness and despair. She tells of her mother's maid, Barbara, who was abandoned by her lover and used to sing a song that tonight is haunting Desdemona – the mournful Willow Song:
"Piangea cantando nell'erma landa, piangea la mesta,
O Salce! Salce! Salce!"
"She wept as she sang on the lonely heath, the poor girl wept,
O Willow, Willow, Willow! She sat with her head upon her breast,
Willow, Willow, Willow!
Come sing! Come sing!
The green willow shall be my garland."
At one point Desdemona is startled by a sound, and her fear becomes apparent. Emilia assures her it is just the wind. Desdemona finishes the song.
"Io per amarlo e per morir
Salce! Salce! Salce!"
"I to love him and to die.
Come sing! Come sing!
Willow! Willow! Willow!"
Her final Good Night is full of dread, and, as Emilia turns to leave, Desdemona gives way to her terror, crying out and embracing her.
Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian is Desdemona in this 2014 production at the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
Act IV: Desdemona's Prayer. Ave Maria (Hail Mary)
Finally alone, Desdemona says a prayer before going to bed. Devout, full of humility, tender, foreboding, with a sense of gathering doom and sadness, her Ave Maria (Hail Mary) is a counterpart – and a stark contrast – to the other "prayer" in the opera, Iago's Credo. Like the Credo, the Ave Maria is not found in Shakespeare's play, but was added to the opera by Boito.
Like the Credo, too, the Ave Maria begins on a single repeated note that evokes the monotone of traditional sacred chant.
Ave Maria, piena di grazia,
Hail Mary, full of grace,
chosen among wives and maidens art thou,
blessed be the fruit, o blessed one,
of thy womb, Jesus.
Pray for the one who kneels in prayer before you,
pray for the sinner, for the one who is innocent,
and for the weak and oppressed, and for the mighty,
also wretched, show thy mercy.
Pray for the one who bows his head under injustice and under misfortune;
for us, pray thou for us,
pray for us always and at the hour of our death,
pray for us, pray for us, pray.
Renata Tebaldi sings the Ave Maria in a 1961 recording with the Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
What is noteworthy throughout the opera is that many of the musical selections also begin with a repeated one-note melody – not only the Credo and Ave Maria, but the love duet (Già nella notte densa), the oath duet (Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!), Otello's Act 3 aria (Dio! mi potevi), and his final aria, Niun mi tema.
Each of these solos and duets begins with a single repeated note; each is instantly recognizable simply through its rhythm. In each, the character transmutes an emotional situation into a startlingly memorable vocal line expressed in a kind of emotional Morse code, before moving from monotone into melody and into yet more expressive lyricism.
Meanwhile, the orchestra moves around and below the vocal line, informing its meaning, infusing it with melody, atmosphere, nuance. It is quite unlike traditional operatic song (even unlike earlier Verdi), which relied on the voice for the melody, the orchestra for an accompanying rhythmic pulse.
In Otello this byplay of melody, rhythm, harmony, and orchestral colour enriches quite marvelously the drama, subtlety, and beauty of the score.