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Verdi's Otello musical highlight: Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria

An incredibly powerful argument for how goodness and love can survive in even the most nightmarish circumstances.

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

13 June 2017 at 6.12pm | 2 Comments

The Willow Song and Ave Maria are connected arias sung by Desdemona, the heroine of Verdi’s 1887 opera Otello, based on Shakespeare’s play Othello. They are her only solo numbers in the opera, and testify to her goodness and her continuing love for her husband Otello, despite his despicable treatment of her.

Where does it take place in the opera?

The Willow Song and Ave Maria take place at the start of the final act of Otello. Desdemona sings the Willow Song – which she learnt as a girl – as she prepares for bed, occasionally breaking off to issue instructions to her maid Emilia, or to meditate on her own sad circumstances. She is overcome with sudden fear, and bids Emilia an emotional farewell. After Emilia has left, Desdemona prays to the Virgin Mary, then falls asleep. She will later be woken by Otello who, maddened by jealousy, murders her.

What do the lyrics mean?

The Willow Song describes how a girl deserted by her lover sang so sweetly that the birds gathered to hear her, and wept so bitterly that the very stones were moved to pity. The song’s title comes from the refrain: ‘Il salce funebre sarà la mia ghirlanda’ (the funereal willow will be my garland). Desdemona breaks off from her song three times: to tell Emilia that Otello will soon arrive, to take off her ring, and, agitatedly, to ask if someone is knocking at the door. Her Ave Maria begins with the words of the traditional Catholic prayer, then evolves into a personal appeal to the Virgin Mary to protect and help all people: the powerful as well as the persecuted.

What makes the music so memorable?

The opening of Act IV powerfully evokes melancholy. The Willow Song is remarkable for its intimate mood: its lyrical, at times almost improvisatory, vocal line, and delicate orchestration, in which woodwind instruments are prominent. Verdi deftly illustrates images from the song’s text, including a busy string figuration to depict the swirling stream by which the girl weeps, and flute flurries for the birds that fly to her side. Desdemona’s two passionate outbursts at the end of the song hint at how stoically she has been controlling her grief. The ensuing Ave Maria movingly depicts how Desdemona finds consolation in prayer. Its shimmering orchestration, beautifully simple melody and ethereal coda – with Desdemona soaring to a pianissimo high note – poignantly portray innocence and trust in a beneficent higher power: a welcome contrast to the mood of bitterness and sorrow the cruel Iago has created by poisoning Otello’s mind against Desdemona.

Otello’s other musical highlights

The devil often gets the best tunes – so it’s no surprise that Iago has some terrific music, including the jocular Act I drinking song ‘Inaffia l’ugola!’ and the chillingly malevolent Act II ‘Credo’. Verdi movingly charts Otello’s mental disintegration, from the heroism of his Act I entry ‘Esultate!’ to the anguished, fragmentary music of his Act III solo ‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar’, and moves us to pity with his heartrending final soliloquy ‘Niun mi tema’. Memorable ensembles include Iago and Otello’s thrilling Act II duet ‘Sì, pel ciel’. And there is plenty of wonderful choral music, including the serene Act II chorus sung by Cypriots and their children in praise of Desdemona, and the mighty Act III concertato as the chorus and all the principal singers react to Otello’s public attack on his wife.

Classic recordings

Plácido Domingo, an iconic Otello, made several recordings of the opera, of which the 1978 version under James Levine also features the superb Iago of Sherrill Milnes and Renata Scotto’s radiant Desdemona. Domingo’s 1994 recording, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, includes Sergei Leiferkus as a deliciously sinister Iago and Cheryl Studer as an impassioned Desdemona. Other fine recordings include Georg Solti’s from 1977, with Margaret Price’s vocal beauty and Carlo Cossutta’s heroic stamina ideal for Desdemona and Otello; and the 1960 recording conducted by Italian maestro Tullio Serafin, with Jon Vickers a passionate Otello and the great Tito Gobbi a jocularly macabre Iago. Among the multiple filmed offerings are the Metropolitan Opera’s 1996 recording with Domingo, Renée Fleming and James Morris and The Royal Opera’s 1992 recording with Solti, Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Leiferkus. Zeffirelli’s dramatic film of the opera with Domingo is also well worth a watch – if you can cope with the absence of the Willow Song!

Further listening

Verdi’s other two Shakespeare operas are the next logical step: his Macbeth is full of theatrical intensity and energy, while his last opera Falstaff is one of the most hilarious and touching operatic comedies. Those who enjoy Verdi’s combination of quick-moving drama and wonderful melodies will find much to enjoy in his successor Puccini’s operas – particularly La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Otello’s dramatic intensity and beautiful orchestration also has much in common with Wagner’s music dramas, such as Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal. And for Shakespeare fans there’s a variety of other Shakespearean operas to explore, including Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Reimann’s Lear and Adès’s The Tempest.

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))

13 June 2017 at 6.12pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Ave Maria, by Keith Warner, Giuseppe Verdi, highlight, Musical highlight, Otello, Production, William Shakespeare, Willow Song

This article has 2 comments

  1. Michael Füting responded on 29 June 2017 at 6:49pm Reply

    There are two recordings of Otello under Carlos Kleiber and on you tube a video from Milano 76 with Domingo. The Munic-Otello was Carlo Cossutta. I very liked the yester-day performance at cinema, really, but hear what Kleiber did: faster and more dramatic.

  2. Martin Atherton responded on 1 July 2017 at 5:33pm Reply

    There are also two recordings of Herbert von Karajan's that surely merit at least a mention in any self-respecting digest, not least for their singers: one on Decca with del Monaco and Tebaldi, and one on EMI with Vickers (a more developed characterisation than for Serafin) and Freni - the latter also the sound track for a film, and featuring an immensely touching Ave Maria. A pity to airbrush these out of consideration, which often seems to happen with Karajan for some reason.

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