Thursday, June 19, 2003
From the debut of Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio in 1839 to that of Aida in 1871, Giuseppe Verdi had composed 24 operas. While far from the pace that Donizetti set during his lifetime, this represents an average of one premiere every sixteen months. In his post-Aida years, Verdi penned his Messa de Requiem (debuted 1874) and participated in revivals of several of his earlier compositions, including a trip to Paris in 1880 to supervise the production of Aida in French. Thus 16 years had transpired from the opening of Aida at the Cairo Opera House to that of Otello at Milan’s La Scala. Many presumed Verdi to be finished with his operatic career in much the same way Rossini retired after creating Guillaume Tell, only to live many decades beyond as the grand old man of Italian opera.
But in a convoluted set of circumstances we shall not discuss here (outstandingly detailed by biographer Charles Osborne in his 1969 book, The Complete Operas of Verdi), the composer was drawn back into the world of opera after being talked into revising Simon Boccanegra with the up-and-coming librettist Arrigo Boito. This work had “hardly ever been performed since 1857” [Osborne, p.409], and Boito agreed to rewrite Francesca Maria Piave’s libretto for its revival at La Scala on March 24, 1881. As you may already know, Boito’s attempt to be both librettist and composer involved a singular piece, Mefistofele, which remains a minor part of the modern repertoire. His only other composition, Nerone, is almost never performed—although I do own a recording of it that will be reviewed in these pages some months hence.
Verdi had only once before set a story by Shakespeare to music. His Macbeth remains the highlight piece of the composer’s “early middle period,” and it should come as no surprise that the libretto, penned by Piave, comprises one of Verdi’s most exciting stories. Perhaps the most famous “opera never written” is Verdi’s Il Re Lear (Shakespeare’s King Lear), a project he thought about nearly all his professional life. Subsequent scholarly study argues that many of Verdi’s musical sketches for various arias and ensemble pieces ultimately showed up in other operas, so we are not necessarily aggrieved to have missed out entirely.
Nearly every school-boy and –girl knows the basic storyline of Othello. Moor rules Cyprus; passes over dangerous rival for promotion; said rival exacts revenge by deceiving Moor into thinking his wife is cheating on him; Moor kills wife in jealous rage, then kills self; The End. What is amazing about Otello is that the operatic version actually IMPROVES on Shakespeare’s play. No matter how pedestrian Boito may have appeared as a composer of music, he was absolutely brilliant as a condenser of storyline. Gone is all that Act I nonsense regarding the Venetian Senate, thereby confining the action to Cyprus. Shakespeare’s work of five “rambling” acts divided up into 15 scenes has been tightened into four operatic acts that move the action along in a terrifyingly inevitable pace, culminating in Desdemona’s bedchamber. Boito does a terrific job of preserving much of the original dialogue, in intent if not in direct translation, and all of the important person-to-person conflicts are retained as well.
Then there is the music—ah, the music.
Most operas written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries opened with a chorus, used either as a device to provide a sense of setting or else to give the listener some much needed back-story. Otello opens with a ship braving turbulent seas, the sailors on board doing their best to remain afloat while their loved ones on shore pray for safe delivery from the storm. Verdi was not breaking new ground by beginning his opera with a storm-tossed boat. Vincenzo Bellini had done something quite similar in Il Pirata (1827, La Scala), the opera that helped launch his brief, albeit spectacular career.
But in 1887, scarcely any operagoer had been greeted by such discordantly harmonious sounds as Verdi employed to introduce his version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Listening to the opening bars today after the assaults on our ears by Schoenberg’s twelve-tone nonsense and Stockhausen’s cacophony, we might find it difficult to sense just how remarkable the premiere might have been to experience. This is, without a doubt, the most spectacular “storm” music of all time. One clearly hears the heralding of a new age of opera, and it’s only just begun, folks.
[NOTE: A few years ago, Opera Colorado gave four performances of Otello that included a Sunday matinee. My wife and I were in attendance as a late-spring storm pummeled Denver’s Performing Arts Complex. Just as the opening chorus was singing its final notes of thanksgiving, the power in the theater went out. Electricity was restored in about fifteen minutes, after which the director elected to start the opera from the beginning. As a result we got to see this remarkable opening TWICE, a thoroughly satisfying event.]
Verdi continues in Act I with one of the greatest drinking songs ever written. I believe it puts “Libiamo” from La Traviata to shame, and even Meyerbeer’s “Bonheur de la table” from Les Huguenots is clearly overshadowed. “Beva con me” has a liltingly playful tone, but with sinister undercurrents that foreshadow events later in the work. The orchestration is remarkable, offering a stage-band effect that truly impresses. It’s one of those songs that sound better the more you hear it.
As if that’s not enough, Verdi wraps up Act I with a love duet that is almost painfully beautiful—especially since we know how everything turns out in the end.
The second act contains Iago’s “Credo,” an aria that personifies evil better than anything heard in those “devil” operas (Faust, Mefistofele, Doktor Faustus, Robert le Diable, etc.) The baritone concludes with the nearly whispered line, “La morte è il Nulla” (Death is nothingness), to a silent orchestra, followed by a shouted “è vecchia fola il Ciel” (heaven is an old wives’ tale), accompanied by a storm of brass.
The highlight of Act III is the scene between Otello and Desdemona, where his jealousy escalates as she continues to profess her innocence. As Osborne writes [p. 426], “Verdi portrays Otello’s condition with such compassion that we are already moved to almost greater sympathy for him than for his unjustly accused wife.” His grand soliloquy that follows may be one of the finest tenor moments Verdi ever created. The act ends with Otello cursing his wife in the open after he’s dismissed the crowd that had gathered to honor him. Collapsing to the ground after his tirade, Iago delivers his infamous “Lion of Venice” line in a sneer as we hear the offstage crowd shouting, “Viva Otello.”
The final act of Otello is marked by Desdemona’s “Willow Song” that segues into an incredibly beautiful “Ave Maria.” The former is one of those arias that has nothing to do with plot advancement but is essentially an opportunity for the soprano to reminisce about a song she recalls from her childhood. Composer Carlisle Floyd did something nearly identical for his title character in Susannah. The latter takes the Latin prayer and composes a musical setting that, in my opinion, far overshadows any other version. Once again, since the audience knows what will soon occur, the poignancy of Desdemona’s prayers creates even greater emotional turbulence. The story rushes to its logical and deadly conclusion with one last confrontation between husband and wife; line by line Otello lays out his accusations while Desdemona refutes them. This is one scene that MUST be experienced on the stage at least once to enjoy the full impact of Boito’s libretto. During this final encounter one cannot escape the vision of Otello’s sword resting on the table near Desdemona’s bed as the two argue back and forth, only to see it lie disused as Otello employs a pillow to suffocate his spouse. Moments later, confronted by his subordinates and learning that his wife was indeed faithful to him, Otello throws his retrieved sword to the floor as demanded by Lodovico, only to produce a dagger from within the folds of his robe and fatally stab himself. The opera’s last words are his: “Pria d’ucciderti … sposa … ti bacai. Or morendo … nell’ombra in cui mi giaccio … un bacio … un bacio ancora … ah … un’altro bacio.” (Before I killed you, wife, I kissed you thus. Now dying, in the shadows where I lie, a kiss, another kiss, ah … another kiss.)
I own a single copy of Verdi’s Otello on CD. It’s the only one I’d ever need to own. This London recording (still in print) from April 1991 (catalogue number 433-669-2, UPC 028943366922) features Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona and Leo Nucci as Iago, with Luciano Pavarotti in the title role and in his best recorded performance I’ve ever heard. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and my old friend Margaret Hilliard (ex-Cleveland Orchestra Chorus director) directs the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The slipcase notes that this live recording was made during the final performances by Solti as the orchestra’s music director, and a finer legacy could not have been possible. In one word: spectacular!