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Opera Essentials: Verdi’s Otello

Everything you need to know about this fiery Shakespearean tragedy, a late work from the master of Italian opera.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

12 June 2017 at 10.03am | 4 Comments

The story begins…

The Moorish general Otello is ecstatically happy with his young bride Desdemona. However, Otello’s trusted advisor Iago begins to drop hints that Desdemona is unfaithful. Who will Otello believe: his comrade, or his wife?

Faithful to Shakespeare's play

Verdi described Shakespeare as ‘a favourite poet of mine’, read his works constantly and had various plans for operas based on Shakespeare plays. However, with the exception of Macbeth in 1847, none of these came to fruition until, in 1879, his publisher Giulio Ricordi offered him a libretto by the composer and writer Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare’s Othello. Boito and Verdi stuck closely to Shakespeare’s story, while cutting Act I and a few minor characters to tighten it for an operatic context. Verdi was delighted by Boito’s subtlety as a writer, and went on to collaborate with him on his third, and last, Shakespearean opera, Falstaff.

An opera of contrasts

Verdi reflects Otello’s dramatic focus on the struggle between good and evil through contrasting music. For example, the radiant, tender beauty of Otello and Desdemona’s Act I duet is a world apart from the savagery and jocular malevolence Iago expresses in his chilling Act II ‘Credo’. While Desdemona’s continuously lyrical music reflects her integrity and Iago’s treachery is communicated through constantly shifting styles, Verdi portrays Otello’s mental disintegration by a gradual musical transformation. His decline can be heard in the transition from the noble dignity of his Act I entrance to the broken phrases of his Act III monologue ‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar’.

A production that highlights the psychological drama

Director Keith Warner’s production explores Otello’s gradual mental collapse, as the malevolent Iago’s machinations cause him to lose all confidence in himself and his wife’s love, and his identity fragments. Boris Kudlíčka’s semi-abstract sets use light and dark colours to mirror the contrasting innocence of Desdemona and evil of Iago. The production also explores the relationships between Moors, Turks and Westerners in Shakespeare’s time, examining Otello’s position as an outsider.

One of Verdi's great successes

Otello received its premiere at La Scala, Milan, on 5 February 1887. The performance was a major event, attended by critics from all over the world. It was a triumph, with the opera regarded as one of Verdi’s greatest, and the singers – particularly Victor Maurel as Iago – highly praised. The opera has remained part of the mainstream repertory ever since.

Otello runs 21 June–15 July 2017. Tickets are still available.

The production is generously supported by Rolex and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Alfiya and Timur Kuanyshev, Lord and Lady Laidlaw, Mr and Mrs Baha Bassatne, John G. Turner and Jerry G. Fischer, Ian and Helen Andrews, Mercedes T. Bass, Maggie Copus, Martin and Jane Houston, Mrs Trevor Swete, Beth Madison, John McGinn and Cary Davis, the Otello Production Syndicate, The American Friends of Covent Garden, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and an anonymous donor.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

12 June 2017 at 10.03am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Arrigo Boito, Boris Kudlíčka, by Keith Warner, cinema, Giulio Ricordi, Giuseppe Verdi, Keith Warner, Otello, Othello, Production, Victor Maurel, William Shakespeare

This article has 4 comments

  1. Waltraud Becker responded on 12 June 2017 at 5:50pm Reply

    Waiting for rehearsal pictures. When can some be seen.

  2. Dr. Basil Lee responded on 17 June 2017 at 6:37pm Reply

    The article tells us all we need to know apart from attending a performance.

    I was hardly more than a boy when I heard a well known critic speak about the opera to a large audience, limiting himself to the final episode, which is so wonderful (and sad). Otello has been my favourite opera - not just Verdi - ever since.

    The YouTube presentation, particularly Papanno's detailed and original one, is exceptional, but I could have wished to hear only an aria from the main man, who is no speaker.

    How can I book a cinema version, preferably a matinee in South West London?

    Many thanks.

    • Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media)) responded on 19 June 2017 at 6:27pm

      Hi Dr. Lee,

      Thanks for getting in touch. You can book tickets to the cinema performance here - please feel free to add your postcode as appropriate; I've chosen Brixton as a South West London postcode but you may wish to find other screenings nearby.

      All the best,


  3. Katherine Roppel responded on 21 June 2017 at 4:37pm Reply

    If this production goes well I hope Jonas Kaufmann will consider performing the entire Tristan and Isolde. No one does smouldering sexual tension as well as he. Let me add that he is a great singer as well. Lucky us!

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