Otello is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare's play Othello. It was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on February 5, 1887.
Chorus of Venetian soldiers and sailors; and Cypriot townsfolk and children.
Scene: In front of the castle. A tavern is nearby. Thunder and lightning.
There is no prelude. The curtain rises upon a storm as the people of Cyprus await the return of the Venetian fleet from its battle with the Turks. Otello arrives safely and announces that the Turkish fleet has been destroyed, and the Cypriots cheer. Jago tells Roderigo that he knows Roderigo loves Desdemona and wants to help, for he hates Otello. Taking Roderigo aside, Jago outlines a plan. The people of Cyprus celebrate the navy's safe return by lighting a bonfire. In the tavern, Jago offers Cassio wine, but Cassio says he does not drink any more. Jago pressures him, and when Jago offers a toast to Otello and Desdemona, Cassio gives in. Jago sings a drinking song and continues to pour Cassio wine. Montano enters and calls for Cassio to begin his watch, but he is surprised to find Cassio drunk and barely able to stand upright. To Montano's surprise, Jago explains that this is how Cassio spends every evening. Roderigo laughs at Cassio. Cassio asks who laughs; Roderigo says, "I laugh at drunkards!" and Cassio attacks him. Montano tells Cassio to refrain, but Cassio draws his sword and threatens to crack open Montano's head. Cassio and Montano begin to duel, and Jago sends Roderigo to attract attention. Cassio wounds Montano as Otello enters and orders them both to lower their swords. Otello asks "honest Jago" to explain how the duel began, but Jago says he does not know. Otello asks for Cassio's explanation, but he, embarrassed, cannot speak. When Otello discovers that Montano is wounded, he becomes enraged. Desdemona enters, and, upon seeing that his bride's rest has been disturbed, Otello declares that Cassio will no longer be his captain. Montano is helped away and the Cypriots leave Otello alone with Desdemona. Together Otello and Desdemona recall why they fell in love. Otello kisses Desdemona thrice and together they walk home to the castle.
Scene: The castle, by the garden.
Jago tells Roderigo that if he does as Jago says, Desdemona will return his love and, because she controls Otello, she will have Cassio reinstated as captain. Cassio goes to wait for Desdemona while Jago hides in the garden. Jago, in a monologue known as his Credo, tells the audience that he is evil. Desdemona and Emilia enter, and Cassio begins to plead with Desdemona. As they enter the garden, Jago slips back into the castle. Pretending not to notice Otello, who is walking by, Jago says that he is deeply wounded. Otello asks what's wrong. Jago, by giving half-answers and asking vague questions, makes Otello demand to know what it is that Jago is thinking of. Jago intimates that Cassio and Desdemona are in love. Otello feels himself becoming jealous, but he wants proof of Desdemona's betrayal first.
A crowd of children, sailors, and Cypriots encircles Desdemona, praising her beauty and purity. They leave her gifts and wish her happiness before leaving. Desdemona carries Cassio's request for reinstatement to Otello. She says that it makes her very sad, and she prays that he will pardon Cassio. Otello sourly tells her to ask him another time, but she insists. Otello says that he has a headache. Desdemona wraps his head in a handkerchief Otello once gave her, linen and embroidered with strawberries. Otello throws it to the ground and says he doesn't need it. Emilia picks up the handkerchief. Desdemona asks for Otello's forgiveness. Aside, Jago demands that Emilia give him the handkerchief. When she refuses, Jago takes it from her. Otello asks to be alone. Desdemona and Emilia leave. Jago pretends to leave, but comes back. Otello, filled with jealousy, demands that Jago prove Desdemona's infidelity, or else Otello will kill him. Jago says that once, when he and Cassio were sleeping in the same room, he heard Cassio talking to Desdemona in a dream. In the dream, says Jago, Cassio told Desdemona that they must be careful to conceal their love. Jago continues that it was only a dream and does not prove anythingâ€”but then asks if Otello remembers the handkerchief that Desdemona was embroidering? Otello says yes, it was the first gift he gave to her. Jago says that he saw it just yesterday with Cassio. Otello calls for blood, and kneeling down, prays for vengeance. Jago kneels with him, and together they swear vengeance on Desdemona.
Scene: The great hall of the castle. Columns.
A herald announces the present arrival of the Venetian ambassador. Otello dismisses him. Jago explains his plan: He will draw Cassio here while Otello watches, hidden. Before he goes, he reminds Otello of the handkerchief. Desdemona enters and reminds Otello of Cassio's request. Otello says that he still has a headache, and asks her to wrap her handkerchief around his head. When Desdemona produces a different handkerchief, Otello demands the one he gave her. When she says she does not have it, Otello says that it was a talisman, and troubles will befall her if she loses it. Desdemona says that he is trying to distract her from Cassio. "The handkerchief!" he demands. Desdemona reminds him how close a friend Cassio was to him. "The handkerchief!" he demands again. Desdemona asks that he pardon Cassio. "The handkerchief!" he demands a third time. Desdemona cries out in fear. Otello says that the handkerchief is damning her to Hell. Desdemona protests that she is faithful. Otello, angry, motions for her to leave.
Otello laments his fate when suddenly Jago calls out, "Cassio is here!" Jago enters and quickly motions for Otello to hide. Cassio follows and says he had hoped to see Desdemona here, for he wanted to know whether she had been successful with Otello. Jago, leading Cassio towards Otello's hiding place, asks him to tell of his adventures with that woman. Cassio asks which woman, and, softly, Jago says, "Bianca." Jago and Cassio laugh, and Jago leads Cassio away from Otello's hiding place. Soon Jago motions Otello to come closer, and as he does, Jago holds up the handkerchief so that Otello can see it clearly.
Bugles sound, announcing the arrival of the Venetian ambassador. Jago warns Cassio that he should leave unless he wants to meet Otello. Cassio exits, and Otello resolves to kill Desdemona. Lodovico, Desdemona, Emilia, Roderigo, and other dignitaries enter. Cassio hides at the back. Lodovico comments that he does not see Cassio. Jago tells him that Cassio is out of favor, and Desdemona says that he will soon be restored. Otello, as he reads the letter from the Doge, asks, "Are you sure?" Jago explains to the puzzled Lodovico that perhaps Cassio's restoration is her wish. Desdemona says that it is, for she has quite an affection for him. Otello commands her to be silent. Desdemona asks for his pardon. Infuriated, Otello calls her a demon and strikes her. Lodovico holds Otello back as the onlookers gasp. Otello calls for Cassio, who comes forward. As Otello begins to read the decree of the Doge, he tells Desdemona to be quiet. Otello announces that the Doge has recalled him to Venice and has installed Cassio as the new Duke of Cyprus. Enraged, Otello throws Desdemona to the ground. The crowd cries for mercy. Aside, Jago tells Otello that tonight is the night to take revenge. Jago says that he will deal with Cassio. Jago then secretly tells Roderigo that the only way to prevent Desdemona from leaving is for the new Duke to die, and arranges for Roderigo to kill Cassio tonight. Otello orders everyone to leave. Desdemona goes to comfort him, but Lodovico drags her away as Otello curses her. All except Otello and Jago leave. Otello, raving about the handkerchief, collapses in a fit. Jago presses Otello's forehead with his heel, then walks away. Outside the crowd of Cypriots calls out victory and glory for Otello.
Scene: Desdemona's bedchamber. Nighttime. A lit lamp in front of an image of the Madonna.
Desdemona and Emilia are preparing for bed. Desdemona asks Emilia to put out the sheets she used on her wedding night, and asks that if she dies, she be buried with them. Emilia asks her not to talk about such things. Desdemona recalls how her mother had a servant named Barbara, who fell in love with a man but went mad when he left her. She sings the Willow Song. As Emilia goes to leave, Desdemona embraces her and cries. Alone, Desdemona prays to the Virgin Mary, then falls on her bed and goes to sleep. Silently, Otello enters. He lays a scimitar on the nightstand, blows out the lamp, and stands watching Desdemona. He kisses Desdemona thrice. Desdemona awakes. Otello asks her if she has prayed tonight. She asks why. He says he does not want to kill her soul. She asks God for mercy, both for her and for Otello. Otello accuses her of sin, saying that he must kill her because she loves Cassio. Desdemona denies it and asks that he summon Cassio on her behalf. Otello says that Cassio is already dead. Desdemona pleads for mercy, but Otello tells her it's too late for that and strangles her.
Emilia knocks at the door. Otello delays for a moment before he lets her in. She announces that Cassio has killed Roderigo. "And Cassio?" asks Otello. "Lives," says Emilia. Desdemona softly calls out that she has been unjustly accused. Emilia sees her lying on the bed and cries out in horror. As Desdemona says again that she is innocent, she dies. Otello calls her a whore. Emilia calls Otello a murderer. Otello says that Jago proved she loved Cassio. Emilia calls Otello a fool, and as he begins to menace her, she calls for help. Jago, Cassio, and Lodovico enter. Emilia demands that Jago deny Otello's accusation. Jago says it is the truth. Otello says that the handkerchief she gave to Cassio proved it to him. Emilia, horrified, explains that Jago stole the handkerchief from her, as Cassio reveals that he found the handkerchief in his dwelling. Montano enters and says that Roderigo, with his dying breath, has revealed Jago's plan. Jago, brandishing his sword, runs away. Otello, lamenting Desdemona's death, draws a dagger and kills himself. As he dies he kisses Desdemona thrice.
Critical Evaluation of the Opera
Many critics consider "Otello" Verdi's greatest and most mature tragic opera. In it, he tried to do away with the traditional recitative-aria structure of opera, much as Richard Wagner had done, except that in some cases, the distinction between recitative and aria is more clearcut in "Otello" than in any of Wagner's operas. Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, was extremely faithful to Shakespeare's original play, except for the omission of Act I of the drama (everything having to do with Brabantio, Desdemona's father). The roles of Othello and Iago are among the most fully developed in all of opera, almost as much so as in Shakespeare's original drama - especially the character of Otello himself (Iago is more of an out-and-out villain in the opera). Verdi raises his orchestral writing to new heights in this opera, using the orchestra almost as a participant in the story, instead of merely as accompaniment. For example, the orchestral writing help reveal the depth of evil in Jago has- an evil possibly rivaled by only one other character in all of opera: Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca.
The three leading roles in the opera are among Verdi's most demanding, both as singing and as acting roles. Some of the world's greatest tenors have sung the role of Otello, among them Giovanni Martinelli, Leo Slezak, RamÃ³n Vinay, Mario del Monaco, James McCracken, Jon Vickers, and in our time, PlÃ¡cido Domingo, who has appeared in more video productions of the opera than any other tenor. Many consider Domingo the definitive Otello. Many great baritones, such as Robert Merrill and Tito Gobbi, have sung the role of Jago. Conductor Arturo Toscanini's 1947 radio broadcast of the opera, starring RamÃ³n Vinay, Giuseppe Valdengo, and Herva Nelli, is considered one of the Maestro's greatest performances and has been released on LP and CD.