Libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Premiere: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1887
Often cited as Italian opera’s greatest tragedy, Otello is a miraculous union of music and drama. It is a musical masterpiece as profound philosophically as it is thrilling theatrically. Shakespeare’s tale of an outsider, a great hero who can’t control his jealousy, was carefully molded by the librettist Arrigo Boito into a taut and powerful libretto. Verdi’s supreme achievement in this work may be the title role: a pinnacle of the tenor’s repertory. All three lead roles are demanding (making Otello a challenge to produce), but the role of Otello, in particular, requires an astounding natural instrument capable of both powerful and delicate sounds, superb musical intelligence, and impressive acting abilities. Many of the greatest tenors have avoided it entirely; very few have mastered it.
In an unparalleled career in the theater spanning six decades, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed 28 operas, of which Otello was the penultimate. His role in Italy’s cultural and political development has made him an icon in his native country. The remarkable Arrigo Boito (1842–1918) was also a composer (his opera Mefistofele, based on Goethe’s Faust, premiered in 1868), as well as a journalist and critic. The plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) have inspired a huge number of operatic interpretations. Verdi and Boito would turn to Shakespeare again after Otello for their final masterpiece, Falstaff.
The opera is set on the island of Cyprus in the late 15th century. (Boito jettisoned Shakespeare’s Act I, set in Venice, for a tighter and more fluid drama.) The island itself represents an outpost of a European power (Venice) under constant attack from an encroaching, hostile adversary (the Turkish Empire). In a sense, the island of Cyprus could be said to echo Otello’s outsider status: he is a foreigner (a "Moor," an uncertain term applied indiscriminately at that time to North African Arabs, black Africans, and others) surrounded by suspicious Europeans.
The score of Otello is remarkable for its overall intensity and dramatic insight rather than the memorable solo numbers that made Verdi’s earlier works so popular. There are arias in this opera, most notably Desdemona’s "Willow Song" and haunting "Ave Maria" in the last act and the baritone’s "Credo" at the beginning of Act II. But equally important are the shorter vocal solos that cover considerable dramatic territory: the tenor’s opening "Esultate!" in Act I is just a few measures long but reveals many facets of his character. Two notable duets, the tenor–soprano love duet that ends Act I and the tenor–baritone oath duet that concludes Act II, are remarkable examples of their respective forms. Throughout the score, the orchestra plays a diverse role unprecedented in Italian opera. In the opening storm scene, the power of nature is depicted with full forces, including an organ, playing at the maximum possible volume. In the Act I love duet, subtle psychological detail is revealed when the oboe and clarinet are seamlessly replaced by the darker English horn and bass clarinet as Otello’s mind turns to painful memories. The very end of the opera belongs to the orchestra as well, with every instrument playing as softly as possible, pulsing like the last breaths of a dying being.
Otello at the Met
The great tenor Jean de Reszke gave the Met’s first two performances of
the title role during the 1891 season—the first of which was on tour with the company in Chicago. The opera didn’t make a great impact on Met audiences, however, until a new production in 1894 featuring tenor Francesco Tamagno and baritone Victor Maurel (Verdi’s choices for Otello and Iago at the world premiere in Milan) established it in the repertory. Conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had played in the orchestra in the world premiere, led 29 performances at the Met between 1909 and 1913, all of which featured Leo Slezak in the title role. Subsequent productions have featured Ettore Panizza conducting Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, and Lawrence Tibbett (1937); Georg Solti in 1963 with Gabriella Tucci, James McCracken, and Robert Merrill; Karl Böhm in 1972 with Teresa Zylis-Gara, McCracken, and Sherrill Milnes; and the 1994 Met debut of Valery Gergiev leading Carol Vaness, Plácido Domingo, and Sergei Leiferkus in the current production by Elijah Moshinsky. Among the other great artists to have made a mark in the title role are Ramón Vinay, Mario Del Monaco, and Jon Vickers. Renata Tebaldi made her Met debut as Desdemona in 1955, and Kiri Te Kanawa was first heard here when she made her company debut in the same role on short notice in 1974. Music Director James Levine, who has led almost 2,500 performances for the Met, has conducted Otello here 82 times—more than any other work.