Otello(i) [Otello, ossia Il moro di Venezia (‘Othello, or The Moor of Venice’)]
- Richard Osborne
The libretto, by a Neapolitan literary dilettante, follows the broad outline of Shakespeare’s play; only in the opera’s third act (Acts 4.iii and 5 of the play) does the libretto follow Shakespeare at all closely.
Otello (tenor), captain of the Venetian fleet, is received with acclaim by the people after his victory over the Turks. The Doge (tenor) confers Venetian citizenship on him, but Otello is preoccupied with thoughts about Desdemona (soprano) whom he has been forced to marry secretly because of the opposition of her father, the influential senator Elmiro (bass). The celebrations are not shared either by Iago (tenor), Otello’s lieutenant and a man increasingly jealous of his political power, or the Doge’s son Rodrigo (tenor), who is in love with Desdemona himself. In a hurried private consultation, Rodrigo learns from Elmiro that Desdemona seems oppressed with some secret sorrow. Rodrigo fears that this is because a decision has been made to give Desdemona to the Moor in marriage, but Iago, who has been eavesdropping on the conversation, assures Rodrigo that Otello cannot thrive. Without telling Rodrigo what he intends to do with it, Iago produces a letter he has obtained in Desdemona’s own handwriting. Meanwhile, Desdemona is distraught that the letter has gone astray. She expresses her several fears in a scena and duettino, ‘Vorrei che il tuo pensiero’, with her confidante, Emilia (soprano). Elmiro now decides that a marriage between his daughter and Rodrigo would be a political bolster against Otello’s rising power. Desdemona is called to a secret ceremony only to find herself told before the whole court that she is to be married to Rodrigo. Otello enters and is startled into confessing that he is bound to Desdemona by a solemn oath. Elmiro curses his daughter, and the first act ends with Otello and Rodrigo angrily challenging one another.
Rodrigo now pleads his love to Desdemona. But the revelation that she and Otello are legally married drives him into a paroxysm of anger and jealousy. Otello is also jealous, fearful that Desdemona may love Rodrigo, a jealousy that Iago fans with guileful use of the stolen letter. In a virulent trio, Otello and Rodrigo confront one another, watched by the helpless Desdemona. Repulsed by Otello, she is revived by Emilia but though the subsequent duel passes off without bloodshed she now has to face the wrath of her father, who demands new acts of expiation.
The third act is set in Desdemona’s bedchamber. As she begins to tell Emilia about her sufferings a gondolier’s song is heard across the water:
There is no greater sorrow
Than to remember happiness
In time of grief.
Desdemona is reminded of the sad fate of her friend Isaure and tries to assuage her sadness by singing the mournful Willow Song, ‘Assisa a piè d’un salice’. As a storm begins to gather, Desdemona dismisses Emilia, and prays (‘Deh calma, o Ciel, nel sonno’). Otello enters the bedchamber but cannot bring himself to kill his wife. She is awakened by the storm and bravely argues her innocence; but Otello is only maddened further and, after telling her that he has ordered Iago to murder Rodrigo, he kills her. An officer (tenor) arrives to report that Iago, mortally wounded by Rodrigo, has confessed to his foul deceptions; he is followed by Rodrigo and Elmiro, both now determined to forgive Otello his clandestine marriage. But it is too late: he shows them Desdemona’s dead body and stabs himself to death.
Rossini’s choice of Shakespeare’s Othello, complete with its tragic denouement, was a bold and original one at the time, however much the opera’s ending was subsequently censored and bowdlerized. By comparison with the later Verdi setting, it is an obviously compromised work. In the first two acts Shakespeare’s plotting and characterization are reduced by Berio di Salsa to mere schematic banality and the abundance of tenors in Barbaia’s Naples company gives the musical texture a persistently brilliant colour, though there is high drama to be had in Rodrigo’s Act 2 aria ‘Ah, come mai non senti’, with its difficult, high-lying cabaletta, and in the Act 2 confrontation between Rodrigo and Otello, ‘Non m’inganno; al mio rivale’. What redeems Rossini’s Otello is the original and highly sympathetic portrait of Desdemona and the superb third act, which is dominated by her and unforgettably coloured by the offstage gondolier, whose fleeting contribution was added at Rossini’s own suggestion. Interestingly, Desdemona is given no formal entrance aria in Act 1, nor is there a love duet, yet the character leaves an indelible impression. In the 19th century the opera’s huge popularity owed much to the final act. Meyerbeer wrote: ‘The third act of Otello established its reputation so firmly that a thousand errors could not shake it. This third act is really godlike, and what is so extraordinary is that its beauties are quite un-Rossini-like. First-rate declamation, continuously impassioned recitative, mysterious accompaniments full of local colour, and, in particular, the style of the old romances brought to highest perfection’.