A military hero is undone by psychological manipulation, betrayal and obsessive jealousy.
Celebrating the Verdi Bicentenary, Johannes Fritzsch, Chief Conductor of Queensland Symphony Orchestra, will make his long-awaited Opera Queensland theatre debut in a bold new production of Otello created by Australia’s foremost director of Shakespeare, Simon Phillips.
From its first explosive moments, describing the terror of a storm at sea, to the three gentle kisses bestowed upon Desdemona’s cold lips by her dying husband, Verdi’s magnificent score is one of the great pinnacles of the opera repertoire.
Leading a superb cast is American tenor Frank Porretta in the title role, opposite the exquisite Cheryl Barker as Desdemona, Douglas McNicol as the scheming Iago and Aldo di Toro as Cassio. Opera Queensland’s Chorus will revel in the grandeur and scale of the work’s monumental choruses.
In the eye of a storm, Otello’s battalion anxiously awaits his return from battle. After teetering on the edge of disaster Otello arrives safely and announces the enemy has been defeated.
Otello’s ensign, Iago, is resentful Otello has appointed Cassio as his captain, a position Iago had hoped to have. Iago approaches Roderigo, who is secretly in love with Otello’s wife, Desdemona, and fuels a rivalry between him and Cassio. As the crew celebrates Otello’s victory, Iago engineers a drinking session, plying Cassio with alcohol.
Montano enters and calls for Cassio to begin his watch. When it becomes obvious Cassio is drunk, Iago tells Montano this is how Cassio spends every evening. Roderigo mocks Cassio, who retaliates.
When Montano intervenes, Cassio attacks him, and in the ensuing fight Montano is wounded. Iago sends Roderigo to raise the alarm and Otello arrives to bring things to order.
When Otello discovers Montano is wounded, he strips Cassio of his office. He orders everyone to their quarters and returns to Desdemona. Together they recall why they fell in love and give thanks for their happiness.
Iago suggests to Cassio he should use Desdemona’s influence over Otello to get him to reconsider his demotion. He voices his nihilistic beliefs and hatred of humankind.
Iago hints to Otello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Otello needs proof before believing Desdemona has been unfaithful. Iago warns Otello against undue suspicion, while simultaneously encouraging it.
Desdemona returns, surrounded by a crowd of locals, and approaches Otello about Cassio.
Otello says he has a headache and cannot consider it right now. When Desdemona offers to soothe his head with her handkerchief, Otello throws it aside. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s companion, retrieves it. Iago forces Emilia to give him the handkerchief.
Otello sends Desdemona away and demands Iago provide proof of Desdemona’s infidelity.
Iago recounts he once heard Cassio sleep-talking, telling Desdemona they must be careful to conceal their love. Iago remarks that just the day before he saw Cassio carrying one of Desdemona’s handkerchiefs.Identifying the handkerchief as a special love token between them, Otello swears vengeance on Desdemona and Cassio. Iago joins him in his vow.
As the battalion prepares for the arrival of a party of dignitaries, Desdemona reminds Otello of Cassio’s request.
Otello asks Desdemona to soothe him with the handkerchief he gave to her. When she cannot produce it they have a terrible fight, in which Otello calls Desdemona a whore. Desdemona leaves in a state of abject distress.
Otello hides to overhear a conversation between Iago and Cassio. Manipulating the situation to control how much of it Otello can hear, Iago asks Cassio about his sex life in such a way Otello believes him to be speaking of Desdemona.
Cassio then produces the handkerchief (which Iago secretly planted in Cassio’s quarters the night before). It is a mystery to Cassio, but to Otello it is proof positive. Iago advises Otello to kill Desdemona by suffocating her in her bed, while he will take care of Cassio. Otello promotes Iago to Captain.
Lodovico and other dignitaries are joined by Emilia, Roderigo, Montano and Desdemona. When Lodovico notes Cassio’s absence, Iago tells him Cassio is out of favour. Desdemona interrupts, telling Lodovico she hopes he will soon be restored. Otello almost strikes her but is held back by Lodovico.
Otello then calls for Cassio, who enters and Otello, now seething with barely contained jealousy and rage, announces he has been called back to Venice and Cassio is to remain there as his successor.
Madly hoping to see some evidence of distress between his unfaithful wife and her lover, he throws Desdemona to the ground, commanding her to weep.
In an extended chorus, the various characters express their feelings. In separate asides, Iago urges Otello to take his revenge as soon as possible, and advises Roderigo that the only way to prevent Desdemona from leaving is to murder Cassio that very night. In a fury, Otello orders everyone to leave, then collapses while Iago luxuriates in his downfall.
Desdemona is preparing for bed with the assistance of Emilia. She recalls how her mother’s maid used to sing a particularly haunting song. After Emilia leaves, Desdemona prays and then goes to sleep.
Silently, Otello enters. Desdemona denies Otello’s accusations of infidelity with Cassio. Otello tells her Cassio is already dead. Desdemona pleads for mercy, but Otello strangles her.
Emilia arrives, announcing Cassio has killed Roderigo. Hearing Desdemona’s dying words, Emilia calls for help. Iago’s nefarious machinations are exposed.
When he realises what has happened, Otello grieves for Desdemona, then stabs himself. Others try to stop him, but it is too late. He drags himself towards his wife and kisses her, dying at her side.
Verdi and Otello
Early in 1884, at the age of seventy, Giuseppe Verdi began the composition of Otello. He produced a work which strove to break with the past and create a new type of music drama. In it we see him mastering the tempest of artistic change which, like the storm that drives Otello to the shores of Cyprus, heralds a thrilling new beginning. ‘Esultate!’
Verdi had been reluctant to return to the composition of operas after Aida. The latter, which had premiered in 1871, had been such an overwhelming artistic and financial success (he was paid the equivalent in today’s money of half a million dollars for the score) that it seemed to put a seal on a career spanning more than thirty years. He dismissed suggestions that he had a moral obligation to go on composing, replying to his friend Clarina Maffei: ‘… you’re joking since you know as well as I that the account is settled.’
His reluctance to write another opera after 1870 may, in part, have stemmed from an awareness that the musical world was changing and that Italian audiences and composers were increasingly looking outside Italy - to France and Germany - for new aesthetic ideas. There were even suggestions that Verdi was old-fashioned and out of touch. He withdrew into self-imposed retirement at his house and farm at Saint’ Agata where he bred cattle and horses, experimented with new strains of grapes, wheat and corn, and established his own abattoir from which he sold pork products under the ‘GV’ brand name. He came to own some thirty farms and estates with associated buildings, was the landlord of numerous tenants, invested substantially in railway stock and bank bonds and was a wealthy man.
He could look back on a lifetime at the forefront of musical tastes, and had nothing more to prove. And yet, extraordinary as it seems, he felt himself to be something of an outsider in the musical world unfolding around him. This made him crotchety. He despised the ‘stupid criticism and praise more stupid still!’ directed at his most recent works; the accusations that ‘I didn’t know how to write for the singers … and that, finally, I was an imitator of Wagner!!!.’ In a dark mood he announced his withdrawal from the operatic world, declaring: ‘When I want to make music I can make it in my own room, without hearing the verdicts of the learned or the imbeciles.’
Ironically, it was the death of the writer Alessandro Manzoni, whom Verdi idolized, that enabled him to throw off this gloomy state of mind, for it inspired the Messa da Requiem of 1874. Though necessarily a religious work, the Requiem was intended for concert performance. After a performance at La Scala in June 1879 which was marked by huge demonstrations of affection for the composer both in the theatre and on the streets, he began to think that he was not a forgotten man after all, and that public taste was not entirely skewed towards the foreign fashions sweeping the opera houses of Italy. When, during a dinner with friends, his publisher Giulio Ricordi steered the conversation around to Shakespeare and the work of the librettist and composer Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s instincts were aroused. When Shakespeare’s Othello was mentioned, his eyes fixed Ricordi with suspicion and interest, and the publisher knew that the time was ripe to broach the idea of Otello. Soon afterwards the conductor Faccio took Boito to see Verdi, and three days later Boito returned with the plan for a libretto and was encouraged to complete it.
Although he had shown interest in the project, Verdi was still ultra-cautious, and neither Ricordi nor Boito knew for certain whether anything would come of it. For his part, Boito laboured mightily on the libretto while suffering the exquisite torment of an abscessed tooth. When Verdi received the first version of the libretto, he liked what he read, purchased it, and put it in a folder with an earlier libretto by Antonio Somma of Re Lear, which he had always intended to compose but never did. Then other distractions got in the way: revisions of Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlos. Work on the composition of Otello would be postponed for five years; Boito and Ricordi would have to wait.
In August 1880, Boito sent Verdi a reworked version of the finale of the third act and Verdi replied at length. He offered some proposals and raised the curious idea of a non-Shakespearean ending to the act, which would have seen Otello’s heroic persona restored by the device of a second battle with the Turks, during which Desdemona would give him her blessing as the curtain fell. It was a solution that harked back to the conventions of Grand Opera and revealed the pull which that art form still exerted on the ageing composer. Boito gently led him away from such an idea, and the working out of terrible events as we now have them – Otello’s curse on Desdemona, his own moral collapse and Iago’s savoured moment of triumph - confirm the sureness of Boito’s dramatic touch and the fine craftsmanship of his libretto.
Verdi’s plunge into a new style of opera combined traces of the old as well as the new. He was not alone in this. Even his great contemporary, Richard Wagner, whose influence was already being felt amongst Italian composers, made deliberate use of older forms when the drama required it. In Iago, whom we might compare with Mephistopheles (Boito’s own Mefistofele was revived successfully in 1875) we can see the modern man in declamatory mode, using singing as heightened speech in much the same way that Wagner used it. When Iago sings beautifully in a more traditional mode, it is merely to deceive. Thus Verdi too uses musical form to convey dramatic intent.
Boito’s most significant single contribution to the opera was Iago’s Credo, which Verdi immediately recognized as being exceptional: ‘Most beautiful, this Credo: most powerful and wholly Shakespearean ….’ In fact there is no equivalent passage of equal scope in Shakespeare’s play - one in which the expression of evil is so direct, complete and terrible. The nihilistic Iago fascinated Verdi more than any other character in the opera, and for a time he toyed with Boito’s idea of calling the opera not Otello but Iago. The composer’s remarks about how the role should be handled on stage convey a distinctly Mephistophelean perspective: ‘If I were an actor and had to play Iago’ said Verdi, ‘I would want to have rather a thin, long face, a high forehead slipping off to the back … manners distracted, nonchalant, flippant, uttering good or evil almost with levity….’ Shakespeare’s Othello, written around 1603, was based on an Italian short story by a disciple of Boccaccio, dating from the late 16th century, and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, in which Mephistopheles was first dramatized for Elizabethan audiences, was from the same period. Both characters are manifestations of evil: Mephistopheles as the devil turned man and Iago as a man turned devil.
In Desdemona (whose name of Greek derivation means ‘ill-fated’) we have the sublimely lyrical echoes of a time when bel canto was the dominant operatic form. In Otello, a vulnerable man riven by jealousy, Verdi gives us, musically speaking, a tension between old and new styles; a condition with which he was only too familiar. We hear in the Act I love duet distant echoes of older tri-partite duets (and indeed traces of the Lohengrin bridal chamber scene composed forty years earlier); a traditional, if disguised, cabaletta rounds off Otello’s Act II duet with Iago, and his ‘Ora e per sempre addio’ clearly has roots in the past. However, other features are entirely novel, and Verdi’s handling of the orchestra is masterly and inventive. The entire opera parallels, in a sense, the composer’s own efforts to resolve whatever conflict may have existed between new and old artistic forces. He would have been forgiven for opting for a quiet life at Sant’ Agata, tending his acres and resting on his laurels, as indeed he had been inclined to do in the 1870s. But instead, at the age of seventy, he chose to meet the new musical demons head on and, in the process, produced what many consider to be his greatest work.
Otello’s tortured personality raises all kinds of questions about the fate of an outsider wielding power in an adopted society. Is he a Christian or a Muslim, and is religion an aggravating factor at all? The answer to this must be ‘yes’. Shakespeare had been prevented by the forces of censorship in his day from exploiting Christian references (hence the frequent invocation of classical deities), whereas Boito and Verdi’s Christian/Muslim metaphors are prominent from beginning to end. The opera begins with what amounts to a favourite Verdian device: a hymn of the beleaguered religious minority: ‘God, the splendour in the squall! God, the smile of the sand dune! Save the vessel and the banner of Venetian destiny.’ Desdemona’s Ave Maria is offered beneath an image of the Virgin Mary, and she herself is venerated as the Madonna by the children, women and sailors. There is a shift of emphasis between Shakespeare and Boito from race to religion, which gives added point to Iago’s role – and his Credo - in the opera.
Shakespeare’s Iago tells us that Othello had been baptized, and this is supported by the latter’s own words. When, ordering Cassio and Montano to stop fighting, he says ‘Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites? For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl!’ Boito transforms this into: ‘Am I among the Saracens? Or has the Turks’ rage been transfused into you so that you tear one another to pieces?’ Since Otello is fighting the Turkish fleet (‘The pride of the Muslims’, he calls it), this also suggests that he is a Christian.
Ironically though, despite his loyalty to the Venetian Republic, Otello cannot escape being identified with the Muslims or falling victim to Christian anxieties about conversion. He may be a Christian in fact, but in the eyes of many around him he is still a Muslim and always will be. This is his dilemma and we sympathize with his pain whilst recoiling from his response to it.
The loving, trusting (even saintly) Desdemona tells Otello how she listened entranced to the stories of his deeds and suffering, of the shining deserts and parched sands of his homeland. In the end though, his torment of jealousy and doubt fanned by Iago will only be overcome at the expense of his honour, his family, and his life. His plea for ‘a kiss…one more kiss’ - words he will utter at the moment of his death - is directed as much to the psychological peace he craves as to the bride in his arms. Fundamentally unsure of himself, he is vulnerable to the manipulations of Iago who is neither Christian nor Muslim, nor a man with a conscience of any kind.
Can there be a more tormented soul than Otello’s when he declares: ‘God! I would have borne the cruel cross of anguish and of shame with a calm mind and been resigned to the will of heaven. But they have robbed me of the vision in which I joyfully keep a tranquil soul. Clemency, immortal, rosy-smiling deity, now must thou cover thy sacred face with the dreadful mask of hell!’
It is a terrifying message, but one that is as pertinent to the state of the world today as it is to the circumstances of Verdi’s most powerful opera.
Written by Peter Bassett
Director’s Note: Simon Phillips
It’s a thrill to work on this breath-taking piece. I have a vivid memory of the first time I saw the Act 2 duet between Otello and Iago performed, sitting on the edge of my seat, galvanised by the perfect confluence of music and drama. As a theatre director, Shakespeare is my first love and I have had some of my most rewarding creative experiences working on his plays. But in the case of Othello, the opera surpasses its source. The irrational extremity of both Othello’s jealousy and Iago’s hell-bent destruction seem somehow better suited to the soaring dynamics of opera, where psychology becomes distilled to its elemental forces. And Verdi’s score is so wonderfully lean and driven, viscerally bound to the hot-bed of the drama and then opening to exquisite moments of elegy.
I worked with my designers to create a claustrophobic world in which that intensity could thrive and fester; a pressure-cooker in which Iago’s nihilism, Otello’s emotional instability and Desdemona’s isolation would make a strange and disturbing sense. I wanted the military scenario to be tangible, so that Otello’s status as a ‘warrior’ was clearly contextualised and his recourse to violence as a solution more understandable. To this end we sourced images of contemporary warfare (the recent conflicts in the Middle East for example) to find immediate connections for our audience.
As an environment, an aircraft carrier created a neat solution to many of these impulses. The cramped quarters and low ceilings in such vessels allowed for scenes to feel intensely claustrophobic and/or intimate when required. However the ability to open the design up to create the vessel’s central hangar allowed us to give the larger scenes and the great choral set pieces their required scope, as well as glimpse the ‘locals’ in Act 2.
I was also interested in the amount of ‘surveillance’ in the piece – and creating as contemporary a sense of that as possible. So the spying scenes are supported by a sense of close-circuit cameras, with the action being watched on screens and via headphones as much as in the flesh.
I hope the result is engrossing. In creating a rationalised, contemporary world for an opera one never wishes to quarrel with its stratospheric musical values. It would be foolhardy to try to pass it off as naturalism. But at its best, opera distils and heats up emotional situations in a way that somehow mainlines the human heart. In this respect, it doesn’t get much better than Otello. Under these circumstances a recognisable world seems to increase the chances of doing this masterpiece justice. We hope our combined efforts deliver an event to remember.
Sung in Italian with projected English translations.
The performance lasts approximately two hours and forty-five minutes including one twenty-minute interval.
Image of Douglas McNicol as Iago created by Mike Curtain