Othello and Otello

For some, Verdi’s opera is an even greater work of art than Shakespeare’s play. I certainly wouldn’t go so far, if only because Shakespeare’s Othello seems, to me, an unsurpassable masterpiece; but it may be maintained, I think, that Verdi’s Otello (or, rather, the Otello of Verdi and Boito, since the librettist in this instance is no mere adjunct to the creative process) is as great an opera as Othello is a play.

The background to the composition of the opera is intriguing. Verdi revered Shakespeare, and – like Britten after him – had harboured unfulfilled ambitions to compose an opera based on King Lear. Verdi had, some decades earlier, composed an opera based on Macbeth, but although there are some very fine things in it, it doesn’t, as a work of art, stand much comparison with Shakespeare’s masterpiece. For various reasons – mainly, one suspects, because Verdi never came across a librettist who he thought could do justice to such a project – his Shakespearean ambitions had remained unfulfilled. But in the early 1880s, all that changed. Verdi was now approaching 70, and was officially retired: Aida had been intended as his farewell to the opera. It is true that after Aida, he had composed the magnificent Requiem Mass – a work of elemental cosmic power – but he appeared to have little interest in composing another work for the stage. At this point, it was suggested that Arrigo Boito collaborate with Verdi in creating a new opera. Verdi was initially somewhat dubious about the proposal: Boito was what is known nowadays as a “Young Turk” – an extravagantly talented but brash young man who had been openly scathing of the Italian arts establishment; and, since Verdi was far and away the most established of all establishment figures in Italy’s artistic landscape, he had taken this criticism personally. Boito, on his part, jumped at the chance of working with Verdi: for all his criticism, he knew genius when he encountered it. But he had to be diplomatic: Verdi was sensitive to the point of being touchy. Indeed, even when their work on their joint project was well under way, Verdi took offence at an interview given by Boito in which he seemed to imply that he would have liked to compose the opera himself (Boito was a gifted composer as well as a gifted poet): Verdi threatened to pull out, and Boito had to employ all his tact to placate his elder colleague.

But for all that, the opera was completed by the end of 1876 (when Verdi was seventy three years old), and the opening performance was a triumph. Perhaps it was the case that, given Verdi’s public stature, whatever he composed would have been enthusiastically received, but the very obvious qualities of this work left no room for doubt: it was clearly a masterpiece. However, its relationship with Shakespeare’s play remains problematic to this day. For many, Verdi and Boito had simply translated the play into an operatic form. I can’t say I agree. The two works are very different, as indeed, they must be: a play and an opera are very different forms, and what is suitable for one is not necessarily suitable for the other. And in any case, it seems to me that Verdi’s and Boito’s conception of the drama was very different in nature from Shakespeare’s. Indeed, Verdi and Boito did with Shakespeare’s material what Shakespeare himself had done with Cinthio’s: they took what they needed from their source to create something that was new, that was their own. The opera is no mere translation.

The very opening of the opera places us in a world somewhat different from that of Shakespeare’s play: we find ourselves immediately in the midst of a storm. Shakespeare’s Othello featured a storm also at this point of the story – although Shakespeare’ storm appears at the start of Act 2, rather than at the opening of the work: Boito and Verdi had dispensed with Shakespeare’s first act, although certain materials from that act are found scattered throughout the opera. But Shakespeare’s storm does not have the sheer violence and elemental quality of the musical storm Verdi unleashes: we seem to be back in the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass. The orchestra seethes and churns, lashes and pounds us with the most brutal and terrifying power, and the chorus seems suitably struck with awe.

This storm scene sets the emotional temperature of the work. An apocryphal story tells of film producer Sam Goldwyn asking for a film that starts with an earthquake and then builds up to a climax, but this is effectively what Verdi gives us: it starts with a storm of preternatural power and intensity, and builds from there. The passions unleashed in this work are so terrifying, so violent, that there are times it seems as if the music will not be able to contain them: they erupt with volcanic power, and sweep all before them.

Otello emerges from this maelstrom of warring elements with the most heroic and commanding of musical lines. This is a man in control even of the elements. But by the time this act finishes, we begin to see cracks. Some half way through this act, Otello emerges to break up a drunken brawl that has broken out: the principal offender is Cassio, whom Iago (Jago in the opera) had deliberately plied with alcohol. This scene occurs in Shakespeare’s play as well. In the play, Othello, purely on the basis of the gravity of Cassio’s transgression, demotes him. And it is only after this demotion that  Desdemona appears, also disturbed from her slumbers by the brawl. But Boito & Verdi shift the order of events to cast the incident in a somewhat different light: Desdemona appears before the demotion, and Otello, seeing her disturbed by the clamour, is furious on her behalf; and he demotes Cassio on the spot. It is a decision arrived at not by weighing up dispassionately the rights and wrongs of the situation, but made on the spur of the moment – an angry reaction to witnessing the disturbance caused to Desdemona. This is not the Otello we had seen emerging so confidently from the tempest: this Otello may be in perfect control while leading men into battle, even when battling storms at sea, but in his personal life, he appears dangerously volatile and unstable.

The first act ends with a long love duet between Otello and Desdemona – amongst the most beautiful music Verdi has written. Boito had initially wanted this to be a trio: he had wanted Jago observing Otello and Desdemona – the serpent in the garden – and commenting upon them. But Verdi had overruled that. However, all is not well even in this Eden: towards the end of the duet, Otello, once again, loses control over himself:

Ah! La gioia msi fieramente’innonda
Che ansante mi giacio…

(Ah! Joy floods my breast so piercingly
That I must lay me down and pant for breath…
     – Translation by Avril Bardoni)

And later, in Act Two, before Jago has begun to apply his poison, we witness once again in Otello a volatility, a dangerous lack of control. At this point of the drama, in Shakespeare, Othello is given these lines:

For she had eyes, and chose me. No, Iago,
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,–
Away at once with love or jealousy!

This is a man confident in himself, and in control. But in Boito’s libretto, that confident assertion (“For she had eyes, and chose me”) is removed; and, while the rest is close enough to Shakespeare’s original, Verdi gives it a musical line bespeaking a passion that, one might have thought, is unwarranted given the immediate dramatic situation: it more than hints at the horrors to come. This Otello is already on edge, and is in danger of tipping over even without Jago’s push. And by no stretch of the imagination is this Shakespeare’s Othello.

Jago, too, is different from Iago. The most striking departure comes in a monologue given to Jago at the start of the second act, the “Credo”:

Credo in un Dio crudel
Che m’ha creato simile a sè,
e che nell’ira io nomo

(I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image
and whom in fury I name
–         translated by Avril Bardoni)

This passage has been much discussed, and much debated. There is no equivalent passage in Shakespeare’s play; and, more than that, Shakespeare’s Iago never came close to thinking along such lines. The Iago of Shakespeare’s play has very limited horizons: he never bothers himself with metaphysical matters. But this Jago is very different. His evil has a very definite source: he is convinced that humanity, by its very nature, is evil, and those who think or act otherwise are merely fooling themselves, merely living a lie; and that he, Jago, by accepting this terrible truth and living according to it, is, ironically, being honest. He was created in vileness, with vileness, and within himself he feels “il fango originario” (“the primeval slime”). The image of the slime may have been suggested by the line Shakespeare gives Othello towards the end of the play, where he describes Iago as one who “hates the slime that sticks on filthy deeds”, but the Jago that emerges from this monologue is far from anything that can be found in Shakespeare: he seems less a real, living figure, and more an incarnation of the very principle of Evil itself.

For a long time, I used to be uneasy with this passage for being so un-Shakespearean, but I don’t think I realised that, for all their reverence of Shakespeare, Verdi and Boito had no intention of slavishly copying their idol: the drama they had set out to create was different in nature. And in the music Verdi gives to this section, he rises to the challenge of depicting pure, unadulterated evil: not since Pizarro’s aria in the first act of Beethoven’s Fidelio has evil been depicted in opera with such terrifying immediacy.

Inevitably, the characters lack some of the intricacy and subtlety that Shakespeare brought to them, but to look for such qualities is, I think, to misunderstand the artistic aim of Verdi and of Boito: in an opera one cannot, in general, apply such fine brush-strokes as one can in a play, but what one can do is to intensify the sheer weight and intensity of the passion. And this is what Verdi does. In scene after unremitting scene, Verdi presents in the music the very extremes of mental agony and of suffering.

Only before the final catastrophe does Verdi offer us some respite, with the beautiful solo Desdemona has with the Willow Song, and her prayer. But even such ethereal beauty, we are all too well aware, is in the shadow of death. The ending, both in play and in opera, seems inevitable. And when it comes, we feel emotionally drained.

Verdi may have wanted to rest on his well-earned laurels after creating this masterpiece: he was, after all, approaching 80. But Boito had other ideas. Verdi had never, after all, succeeded in comedy, had he? His very first opera, Un Giorno di Regno, was a comic opera, but it had flopped and was now virtually forgotten. So how about another Shakespearean opera – this time, a comic one, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor? Boito produced a sparkling libretto, incorporating some passages from the Henry IV plays. And once again, Verdi couldn’t resist. So, aged nearly 80, we went on to produce perhaps his most miraculous score, Falstaff. But that, as they say, is another story.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Barbara on May 16, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Good article. Thanks very much.


  2. Thank you very much, Barbara. It’s always a pleasure to write about things I love!


  3. Posted by alan on May 18, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    I’m curious – at the time did people speculate whether Boito was more than just the librettist?


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