Primer: Verdi's OtelloBy COC StaffPosted in 18/19
Before you experience Verdi's Otello live, check out this primer for everything you need to know about the composer's penultimate opera.
PLOT IN A MINUTE — Spoiler Alert!
Otello, a former slave, is now captain of the Venetian fleet and the new governor of Cyprus. His ensign, Iago, enflamed with secret jealousy, connives to destroy Otello by turning him against his trusted friends and his beloved wife. Otello’s suspicions regarding his wife’s fidelity steer him out of control. In a final, desperate act he strangles her and — upon learning of her innocence — kills himself.
YOU CAN'T RETIRE JUST YET...
Verdi seemed to be all but retired after his masterpiece Aida premiered in 1871 — but his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, encouraged him continue working and adapt Shakespeare’s Othello with librettist Arigo Boito. Ricordi suggested the idea in 1879... but it took Verdi nearly a decade to finish the work. Otello finally premiered in Milan in 1887, a long 16 years after Aida.
A SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY
Many of Verdi’s operas have their roots in Shakespeare’s works; he also adapted Macbeth and Falstaff (from The Merry Wives of Windsor), and he considered adapting both King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra as well, although he never completed his work on the latter two. Verdi’s take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy has overtaken Rossini’s adaptation — also called Otello — which premiered in 1816, the same year as Rossini’s much more enduring Barber of Seville.
THE CAST: MEET THE PLAYERS
How does the operatic take compare to Shakespeare’s work? There are some significant changes. The play’s first act, which takes place in Venice, was removed, and Iago’s many plans to tempt Otello to jealousy were reduced to fewer, more melodramatic scenes.
The difficulty of staging Otello has always been about finding three leads who can credibly tackle the psychological, technical, and artistic demands of this repertoire. As The Globe and Mail noted, this is an opera that “requires an extraordinarily skilled cast of singers, and that's just what Torontonians will get.”
We have three extraordinary performers in the leading roles — tenor Russell Thomas is making his much-anticipated stage role debut as the title role, baritone Gerald Finley brings his Iago to the COC stage for the very first time, and soprano Tamara Wilson is making her role debut as Desdemona.
Check out our blog post, Scaling Everest: Why Verdi's Otello is Such a Difficult Sing for more on our cast!
A NEW COC PRODUCTION
David Alden directs our new production of Verdi’s Otello, hailed by The Independent as, “★★★★★ … a flawless production” when it premiered at the English National Opera (ENO) in 2014.
Check out ENO’s trailer for a taste of what you can expect to see on stage:
FORGING A NEW MUSICAL LANGUAGE
For Verdi’s two final operas, Otello and Falstaff, the composer experimented with a new compositional style that he had only hinted at in his previous works. If we compare Aida to Otello in terms of musical form, we see an extraordinary shift in a mere 16 years.
Verdi’s style has always been explicitly dramatic and clearly embedded in the traditions of early-19th-century Italian opera, but with Otello, Verdi does away with the standard forms of aria and ensemble for the very first time. The piece moves from scene to scene with no sense of rest. He actually resists allowing melodies to develop, by shifting the listener from one melodic fragment to another. This constant motion creates not only a sensation of forward momentum, but of anticipation and undeniable suspense.
The composer's new technique of constantly interrupted melody in Otello is an ideal match to the episodic nature of Shakespeare’s drama.
TAKE A LISTEN
There's no better source material than William Shakespeare's Othello.
Legend has it that Verdi always had two books by his side when travelling: the Bible and the collected works of William Shakespeare.
Verdi didn't read English himself but benefitted from his wife’s knowledge of the language and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn't satisfied with using indirect sources in adapting Shakespeare, preferring instead to get as close to the text as possible through meticulous cross-referencing of existing translations.
Othello is exquisite in dramatizing how jealousy alters perceptions. It gives linguistic shape to the psychological stressors faced by Othello in being both a highly esteemed general as well as a person of colour in the predominantly white Venetian Republic. Of course, it also produces one of the most inscrutable and cunning theatrical villains, the odious Iago:
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
Verdi's Otello is on stage from April 27 to May 21, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Production generously underwritten in part by
Howard & Sarah D. Solomon Foundation in honour of Gerard Mortier
Connect with us on social by using #COCOtello | @CanadianOpera
Take your culture game to the next level, with our monthly eOpera.
Production photo credits: English National Opera's 2014 production of Otello, photos: Alastair Muir.
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