Recorded on 12/31/1969, uploaded on 04/09/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
With the success of Aida, Giuseppe Verdi planned to end his career as one of Italy’s most successful operatic composers. Verdi’s publisher, Guilio Ricordi, however, thought the composer’s retirement premature, a waste of his talents and even more importantly, of profits. Thus, Ricordi set out to coax him out of retirement. Knowing that only an impressive libretto with the proper dramatic elements could tempt Verdi to compose again, Ricordi enlisted the aid of Arrigo Boito to craft a suitable libretto from William Shakespeare’s play Othello and an outline of the libretto was shortly thereafter presented to Verdi. Though interested, Verdi initially displayed skepticism towards the project and little work was accomplished. However, once Verdi realized Boito’s abilities as a librettist, he became increasingly more dedicated to the project.
Aspects and preparation of the opera, which originally was to be titled Iago after the play’s villain, were kept a secret right up until its premiere, and Verdi even maintained the right to cancel the performance at the last minute. However, word of a new opera by the retired Verdi inevitably reached the public creating a buzz of expectancy. The premiere, on February 5, 1887 at La Scala, nearly 15 years to the day after that of Aida, was an outstanding success with Verdi giving twenty curtain calls at its conclusion.
Considered today to be his most dramatic and mature opera, Otello is somewhat different in approach than its predecessors. Verdi, to a degree, adopted the practices of Richard Wagner in doing away with the standard set-pieces of recitatives and arias. Though, the distinctions are still more discernible in Otello than in any of the works of his German counterpart. Furthermore, the orchestra in Otello also plays a much larger role than in Verdi’s previous operas, being here elevated above the role of mere accompaniment to an important aspect in the portrayal of the narrative.
In Act II, Iago begins to execute his plans of revenge against Otello. Subtly, he orchestrates a meeting between Cassio and Desdemona, Otello’s wife, by suggesting that Cassio appeal to Desdemona to persuade Otello to reinstate him as captain of the navy. Though enough to arouse Otello’s suspicion, particularly once Iago plants seeds of doubt in his mind as to his wife’s faithfulness, Iago still realizes he needs a more substantial piece of incriminating evidence. Thus, he takes by force a strawberry-embroidered handkerchief which Otello had given Desdemona and in the final scene of the Act delivers his coup de grâce. Otello sings that he now believes his wife has been unfaithful in the aria Ora e per sempre addio sante memorie (“Now and forever farewell, holy memories”). Iago then returns and Otello demands proof of his accusations. He tells Otello that he once heard Cassio speaking to Desdemona in a dream, that they must be cautious to hide their secret love from Otello (Era la notte, Cassio dorma / “It was night, Cassio was sleeping”). Admitting that this was merely a dream and does nothing to incriminate Desdemona, Iago goes further by telling Otello that he also saw Cassio in possession of Desdemona’s strawberry-embroidered handkerchief. Otello, having earlier proclaimed Iago an “honest man”, believes the lies he is told, and the two men, in the final duet Si, pel ciel marmoreo guiro (“Yes, by the marble heavens I swear”) swear vengeance on Cassio and Desdemona. Following their oath, the orchestra closes the act bitterly with a chromatic descent into the dominant before the final chords. Joseph DuBose
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