A preview of Verdi’s ‘Otello’

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Presented by “The MET Opera: Live” at the USCB Center for the Arts, Saturday, Oct. 27, at 12:55 p.m.

By Alan Schuster

Without a doubt, Francis Toye’s biography, “Verdi: His Life and Music” continues to be the standard on its subject since it was published in 1931. Writing about the composer’s “Otello”, he expressed his high esteem for it in these words. “In my view it is the greatest of Verdi’s operas. Have the love, the anguish, the passion, and the hatred of human beings ever been presented to an audience with deeper insight or poignancy than in this music? I think not. Shakespeare himself did not do, nor could not have done, better.”  Much credit for this goes to Verdi’s librettist, Felice Romani, who did a remarkable job of transforming the play into musical poetry. No doubt Verdi reminded him of his imperative of “brevity, clarity and truth.”

The cast: 

Otello, Venetian general, governor of Cyprus

Desdemona, his wife

Iago, Otello’s ensign

Cassio, Otello’s lieutenant

Emilia, Iago’s wife

Roderigo, a Venetian

Act I: Otello returns home during a storm and announces to a cheering crowd that he has destroyed the Turkish forces. When he leaves them to be with his new bride Desdemona, Iago expresses outrage at having been overlooked for a promotion which Otello gave to his rival Cassio. He swears revenge against Otello and begins it by plying Cassio with wine. When Cassio makes a spectacle of himself, Otello returns and dismisses him from his post. Iago, aware that Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, lies to him that Cassio is also in love with her. When the storm ends, Otello and Desdemona are now alone to recall their romantic courtship.

Musical highlights

*A magnificent outburst by the orchestra simulates the fury of a storm at sea. Otello arrives: “Esultate! (Glad tidings! Victory is ours …) leading to a drinking ensemble: “Beva con me.”

*Otello, Desdemona: “Gia nella notte…” (In the dark night…), a tender duet, passionate and calm. It’s one of Verdi’s finest.

Act II: Iago urges Cassio to seek reinstatement by asking Desdemona to intercede on his behalf. Cassio agrees, after which Iago stirs up Otello’s jealousy by warning him of Cassio’s curious friendship with her. When Otello demands proof, Iago says that he has seen one of her handkerchiefs [which Iago placed on his person when she dropped it earlier] in Cassio’s hand. This enrages Otello as Iago joins him in an oath to avenge her infidelity. Musical highlights

*Iago: The famous Credo aria, an astonishing depiction of evil: “Credo in un Dio crudel…”

*Desdemona launches a stunning quartet, “Se inconscia” – (If ever against my will…), proclaiming her faithfulness to Otello while Emilia has her own suspicions against her husband, Iago.

*Iago (to Otello): “Era la notte…” (During the night…), lying that he heard Cassio dreaming about Desdemona. It’s insinuatingly effective, an inspired piece of music. When Iago hints at the planted handkerchief, it becomes a one-two punch which infuriates Otello.

Act III:  With Venetian officals due to arrive soon, Iago presses Otello to act quickly against Desdemona in order to protect his honor.  When they arrive, Otello reads a document ordering him to return to Venice. Suddenly, he loses control and turns on Desdemona, throwing her to the floor. Furious, he orders everyone to leave, then falls to the floor as well. As a crowd outside cries “Viva Otello, the Lion of Venice,” a mocking Iago – standing aside – points to Otello and gloats “Ecco il leone!” (See there, the lion). Musical highlight:

In the final minutes of the act, a massive ensemble begins as Desdemona cries: “A terra! – (Here, in the dust…). Six others express contrasting feelings at the same time, forming one of opera’s most dramatic and powerful act finales. How powerful? When it ends, check your pulse rate.

Act IV: In her bedroom, Desdemona, while praying, has a premonition of danger. She falls asleep. Otello enters, awakening her with kisses, and then accuses her of being Cassio’s lover. She denies this, but doubt overwhelms him and, as she pleads for her life, he smothers her. There’s a knock on the door. Emelia enters and reveals Iago’s evil plotting against him, as well as asserting Desdemona’s innocence. Seeing her dead, Emilia screams, bringing Iago and Cassio into the room. Realizing he has been deceived, Otello stabs himself, kisses her one last time, and then falls dead.

Musical highlights:

*Desdemona: Both the familiar Willow Song (Salce! Salce!), followed soon by her “Ave Maria” prayer, are beautiful, poignant and simply expressed.

*Otello: “Niun mi tema…” – (Do not fear me…) is the most moving passage of the opera as he realizes the horrifying depth of what he has done.  Dying as he reaches for her, he cries: “Un bacio…un bacio ancora…un altro bacio…”

Blanche Roosevelt, an opera singer who was in Milan during the premiere of “Otello” wrote this: “The anticipation of Otello was such that the streets were packed around La Scala on the morning of the premiere, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Had he been in that crowd, he certainly would have been torn to pieces, as such a crowd in its enthusiasm rarely distinguishes between glory and assassination.” After the performance, she wrote that “the emotion was something indescribable, and many wept…”

No soprano today can match the vocal richness and acting skills essential for Desdemona than the remarkable Renee Fleming.  No one!  And with the accomplished talents of Johan Botha (Otello) and Falk Struckman (Iago) joining her on stage, the audience will see and hear four great acts pass in a rapid two hours and ten minutes!

Tickets are $20 for adults and seniors; $18 for OLLI members and $10 for youth.  All seats are assigned and the box office opens at USCB Center or the Arts one hour prior to the 12:55 p.m. curtain time, or call 521-4145.