Opera in four acts on a libretto by Arrigo Boito
, taken from the tragedy Othello
by William ShakespearePremière:
Milan, Scala Theatre, February 5th, 1887.
Act I. The action unfolds on Cyprus, under Venetian rule in the 16th century. The scene is outside the castle, residence of Otello, governor of the island, facing the port. It is night. A furious storm churns the sea, and a crowd of Venetian citizens and soldiers helplessly watch while the ship of the Moor Otello desperately tries to make it into port. Only Jago, one of Otello's men, does not participate in the general apprehension for the safety of his leader: he hates Otello, because Otello has promoted Cassio captain instead of him; he meditates revenge. The crowd is jubilant as Otello finally lands safely and announces that the Turkish fleet has been defeated. When the Moor enters the castle, the fireworks start and all drink to his victory. In the midst of the rejoicing, Jago starts to weave the scheme that will lead to his commander's downfall: he treacherously insinuates to Roderigo, who had revealed to Jago his love for Otello's wife, Desdemona, that Captain Cassio also feels the same affection for the woman. Then Jago gets Cassio drunk, and incites a fight between the two men, but the dangerous duel that starts between them is stopped by Montano. However, the peacemaker is wounded by Cassio. Jago sounds the alarm, swelling the episode out of proportion until the crowd is in tumult. Called back by the shouts and noise, Otello, falsely informed by Jago, punishes Cassio and demotes him. This is a first victory for Jago, who exults.
Act II. A ground-floor hall in the castle; a door leads to the garden. Jago continues his plan: he suggests to Cassio to ask Desdemona to intercede in his favour with Otello. In a monologue, Jago describes his cynical view of life, then he plants the seeds of jealousy in the Moor's soul, leading him to suspect that there is a secret love between Cassio and Desdemona. Thus, when the woman, arriving from the garden, tries to intercede for the degraded captain, Otello's jealousy is enflamed, and he brusquely refuses the request. Once again, Jago insinuates having heard some compromising words murmured by Cassio in his sleep, and, having obtained with the help of his wife Emilia a handkerchief that Otello had given to his young wife, affirms having seen it in Cassio's hands. For Otello, this is proof enough. He vows terrible revenge.
Act III. The great hall of the castle. The lookout has sighted the galley bringing Venetian ambassadors. Unsuspecting Desdemona once again asks Otello's pardon for Cassio, but all she gets for an answer is Otello's request for her to show him the handkerchief he had given her as a talisman. Since she cannot give it to him, outraged, he accuses her of being a courtesan and repulses her. Alone, he mourns his lost happiness. But the arrival of Jago revives him; the henchman wants to complete his web of lies and prepares more deception. He manages to get Otello to listen, hidden, to a conversation he has with Cassio about a courtesan, making Otello think they are talking about Desdemona. Otello pledges to kill his unfaithful wife. But in the meantime the ambassadors have landed and announce that Otello has been recalled to Venice and that his place will be taken by Cassio. In the presence of the dignitaries, Otello, by now completely out of his mind, tells his wife "we will sail tomorrow" and brutally grabs her arms and throws her to the ground. Jago puts in motion the last part of his diabolical plan, urging Roderigo to kill Cassio, while Otello damns Desdemona; all flee in horror. Delirious, the Moor falls to the ground senseless. Jago triumphs over the inert body of his commander.
Act IV. Desdemona's room. She is getting ready to go to bed, aided by Emilia. She is hurt by Otello's attitude toward her, for which she finds no explanation. She has just finished her prayers when Otello enters. He openly accuses her of having been unfaithful to him, even though, unheeded, Desdemona proclaims her innocence. He has already condemned her and proceeds to strangle her. Emilia returns announcing that Roderigo has been killed while trying to assassinate Cassio. Seeing Desdemona dead, she accuses Otello and cries that he has killed an innocent woman. Jago appears, and Emilia reproaches him for his intrigue; his only answer is to flee. Otello, dismayed and suddenly aware of the trap into which he has fallen gives a last kiss to his beloved wife and stabs himself.
With Otello Verdi returned to the Shakespearean themes that he had not treated since the long past Macbeth (1847). Following the great success of his Messa da Requiem at the Scala in Milan, which Verdi himself directed five years after its première, Giovanni Ricordi asked him to compose another opera from a tragedy of the English bard, suggesting Arrigo Boito as librettist. Francesco Faccio accompanied Boito to see Verdi, but the Maestro, after a look at the libretto, would not accept it, saying that at the moment he was more inclined to compose a comic subject, not a dramatic tragedy like Otello. But after a while the unspecified comic subject was no longer mentioned, thanks partly to the shrewdness of Ricordi, partly to Boito's patience, and in no small measure to the unquestionable appeal of the Shakespearean story. In 1879, despite many difficulties, the libretto was ready, but a year later the musical score was yet to appear. A small "diplomatic" incident was a further obstacle to its composition. In 1884, while Arrigo Boito was in Naples to present his Mefistofele, it was suggested to him to go ahead and write the music himself for his by now famous Otello libretto, since Verdi apparently was not interested. The librettist, extremely embarrassed, answered in such a guarded manner that he was misunderstood, and the local papers wrote articles citing Boito's regret at not being able to write the music for the opera himself. Verdi was so irritated by this incident that he stopped writing. But time healed the bruised feelings and smoothed the ruffled feathers; by November 1885 the score was ready and by the following year the orchestration was also completed.
But the first performance was not yet in sight: oppressed by his strong sense of responsibility for the Shakespearean subject and by the weight of his enormous popularity and reputation, Verdi continually refused to set a date for the première, prolonging rehearsal time. He chose Romilda Pantaleoni in the role of Desdemona (soprano), Victor Maurel as Jago (baritone) and Francesco Tamagno as the protagonist. This last was to sing the same role in December 1899, when Otello was directed by Maestro Arturo Toscanini.
On February 5th, 1887, Verdi's Otello was finally performed at the Scala Theatre in Milan. For the occasion all the newspapers in Europe sent their correspondents.