OTELLO, OSSIA L’AFRICANA IN VENEZIA
- Dramma in 3 acts
- Composer: Gioachino Rossini
- Libretto: Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa, after Shakespeare
- First performed: Teatro del Fondo, Naples, 4 December 1816
SETTING: Venice, 1570
CHARACTERS: OTELLO (tenor), Moorish general of the Venetian troops; DESDEMONA (soprano); RODRIGO (tenor), the Doge’s son; IAGO (tenor), a Venetian officer; EMILIA, Desdemona’s confidante (soprano); ELMIRO, Desdemona’s father, a senator (bass).
ORIGINAL CAST: Andrea Nozzari as Otello; Isabella Colbran as Desdemona; Giovanni David as Rodrigo; Giuseppe Ciccimarra as Iago; Maria Manzi as Emilia; Michele Benedetti as Elmiro.
“They have been crucifying Othello into an opera,” Lord Byron protested. “Music good but lugubrious – but as for the words! All the real scenes with Iago cut out – & the greatest nonsense instead – the handkerchief turned into a billet doux, and the first Singer would not black his face – for some exquisite reasons assigned in the preface. Scenery – dresses – & music very good.”
To enjoy Rossini’s tragedy, one must forget both Shakespeare and Verdi‘s later opera. Indeed, some critics argue that the librettist Berio didn’t know Shakespeare at all, but based the opera on a 1796 French adaptation by one Jean-François Ducis. All the action takes place in Venice, not in Cyprus; Rodrigo is the most important male character after Otello, and has some of the most difficult music; and Iago is a comparatively minor role.
Otello may not be Shakespeare – but it’s one of Rossini’s most dramatic works, and was, before Verdi’s great work displaced it, much admired. Félix Clément considered it the most remarkable work of the maestro’s second style. “Otello, in the dramatic genre, has its place next to Guillaume Tell and Semiramide. Nowhere has Rossini put more passion into his music, and the reproach that Italian music does not scrupulously translate dramatic situations must fall in the presence of the first-rate beauties offered by this score.
“The instrumentation is remarkable… The genius of Shakespeare could not find a more faithful musical interpretation than in the third act. The monotonous recitatives of the old lyric tragedy are replaced with a new sort, varied and in harmony with the dramatic character of the situations. The orchestra replaces the harpsichord in the accompaniment, following the example of Gluck.” Otello, H. Sutherland Edwards thought, marked the end of the interminable recitatives accompanied by piano or piano and double bass by which the rare musical pieces were separated in the serious works of Rossini’s predecessors.
Stendhal, though, objected to an Otello animated by wounded vanity rather than love – a Henry VIII or a Nero cum Bluebeard. It took all Rossini’s genius to save the opera not just from stupid words (common enough) but nonsensical situations (more difficult). Stendhal considered it Rossini’s masterpiece in the German style, because it was full of fire; “It’s a volcano!” they said at San Carlo. But the force was always the same; there are no nuances; one doesn’t pass from serious to gentle, from pleasant to severe; we are always down among the trombones. And he missed ordinary recitatives; the lack of them, he thought, made the work even more monotonous. Stendhal’s taste in music was obviously rather conservative.
The overture comes from Il turco in Italia and Sigismondo. Act I opens in the Piazzetta di San Marco. The people await Otello, who has been victorious over the Turks in Cyprus; for his deeds, the Doge makes him a Venetian citizen – angering his son Rodrigo and the soldier Iago, both in love with Desdemona. The Introduzione (No. 1: ‘Viva Otello!’) includes a vigorous martial chorus. Otello makes a magnificent entrance as a conquering general – a tradition going back to the castrati of opera seria. His bravura aria (No. 2: ‘Ah! si per voi già sento’) is an impressive example of its type. Rodrigo and Iago (the kind of people who pronounce ‘African’ with a double g) plot to bring down Otello, using a letter and a handkerchief Desdemona sent to Otello, but which her father Elmiro intercepted. Their duet (No. 3: ‘No, non temer’) is effective, if flashy.
The scene changes to a room in Elmira’s palace. A lovely maestoso passage introduces Desdemona. She fears that Otello now believes her faithless. Her servant Emilia tries to comfort her in a melancholy duet (No. 4: ‘Vorrei che il tuo pensiero’) containing music from Aureliano in Palmira. Stendhal thought it the best number in the opera, recalling the purity and simplicity of Tancredi.
The finale (No. 5: ‘Santo Imen’) takes place in a hall magnificently arranged for a wedding. Desdemona expects to marry Otello; to her dismay, her father intends her to wed Rodrigo. Here we find a beautiful trio (‘Ti parli d’amore’), first heard in L’equivoco stravagante. Otello enters; Desdemona admits she owes him her love, whereupon her father (like so many heavy fathers in Verdi) curses her. The quartet ‘Incerta l’anima’ is one of Rossini’s best frozen ensembles, a tragic maestoso. The act ends in an exciting stretta as the two tenors face off, and Elmiro drags Desdemona away.
Meyerbeer was present at the first performance in Venice. “The first act did not please at all, and is also very weak, with the exception of [the] very beautiful canonlike adagio in the finale,” he wrote to his brother.
Act II takes place in a room in Elmiro’s house. Desdemona reveals to Rodrigo she is Otello’s wife. His aria (No. 6: ‘Che ascolto?’) is a showpiece, obviously, and a challenge to the tenor, but its sweet melody saves it from being mere vocal display; its high vocal line establishes Rodrigo’s immaturity. He’s an adolescent, alternatively pitying himself and fuming about Otello.
The scene changes to Otello’s garden. In a duet (No. 7: ‘Non m’inganno al mio rivale’), Iago convinces Otello that Desdemona is faithless; the ferocious last section (‘L’ira d’avverso fato’), borrowed from Torvaldo e Dorliska, may have suggested the duet ‘Sì, vendetta’ in Verdi’s Rigoletto. The arrival of Rodrigo launches a magnificent terzetto (No. 8: ‘Ah! vieni!’) – the best piece in the opera. The two men fight while Desdemona tries to restore them. This is bel canto as macho posturing. Propulsive excitement, competitive vocal virtuosity, dazzling high notes wielded like sabres, crescendos – this has it all. The men go off to fight, and Desdemona collapses.
The finale (No. 9: ‘Che smania, oimè, che affanno!’) is the soprano’s big scena (because, of course, she’s dead at the end of the opera): anguish as she worries if Otello has been killed, and horror as her father curses and disowns her.
“In this act,” Meyerbeer said, “what appealed most was the stretta of a duet taken entirely from Torvaldo e Dorliska, the stretta of a trio copied nearly entirely from his Gazza ladra, and 12 measures of a cabaletta from an otherwise awful aria by [the soprano] Festa. This occurred in act 2, and the thinking part of the audience gave loud voice to its dissatisfaction with the unprecedented extent of the self-borrowing. The old theater habitués started talking about a fiasco, especially since one had heard that act 3 contains only three pieces, of which two (a romance and a prayer) are, moreover, very short. And yet these two small items not only saved the entire opera, but elicited such a furore, the like of which had not been seen for 20 years…”
Act III is the most admired section of the opera. The composer himself believed that of all his works only this act, the second act of Guillaume Tell, and all of the Barber of Seville would survive. “This third act of Otello so firmly established Rossini’s reputation in Venice that even a thousand follies could not rob him of it,” Meyerbeer thought. “But this act is divinely beautiful, and what is so strange is that all the beauties it contains are blatantly un-Rossinian: outstanding, declaimed, even passionate recitative, mysterious accompaniments, lots of local couleur, and especially the antique style of romance in its highest perfection.”
The scene is Desdemona’s bedchamber. The young woman is desperately unhappy: her father hates her; Otello has been banished by the Council of Ten, and also hates her. The act is a single number (No. 10: Recit–Aria–Duetto). A gondolier passes by, singing a mournful passage from Dante (an effect Halévy remembered in La reine de Chypre); Desdemona sings her plaintive Willow Song, ‘Assisa a piè d’un salice’, accompanied by the harp (Stendhal thought it gained its effect from the situation rather than from Rossini’s music); she prays, then gets into bed.
A storm breaks overhead. Through the lightning flashes, the audience sees Otello slowly descend a staircase, a lamp in one hand, a khanjar under his arm. Desdemona wakes; after an intense duet, Otello stabs (not suffocates) her. The other characters arrive with good news: Otello is forgiven, and he can marry Desdemona. The distraught general stabs himself, and the opera comes to a shockingly abrupt end for the time.
Here Rossini makes little concession to vocal display for its own sake; everything serves the drama. The tragic ending was too much for some of his contemporaries; in several cities, Otello ended happily. Desdemona survived and married Otello.
The opera was a great success, and soon spread to other Italian cities. “In Venice,” Meyerbeer said, “the enthusiasm was so great, even after 30 performances, all of which were sold out, that considerable sums were paid to [the tenor] Tacchinardi and Mme Festa to perform Otello again this autumn for three consecutive months”. It appeared in Vienna in 1819, Paris in 1821, London in 1822, and New York in 1826. It maintained its popularity throughout Europe until 1887, the year of Verdi’s Otello.
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
- Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
- Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824
- See also m’colleague Phil’s review.