‘Otello’ is Shakespeare – in Verdi style

Renée Fleming as Desdemona with Michael Fabiano as Cassio, James Morris as Lodovico and Falk Struckmann as Iago in a scene from the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Otello.” Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Renée Fleming as Desdemona with Michael Fabiano as Cassio, James Morris as Lodovico and Falk Struckmann as Iago in a scene from the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Otello.”

Domestic violence. It’s older than the Bible and as fresh as the morning news.

No wonder composer Giuseppe Verdi said yes to Arrigo Boito’s libretto for an opera based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The story has all the ingredients of high drama – passionate love, raging jealousy, murder and suicide.

In 1603, there were no restraining orders when Shakespeare’s tale took to the stage. In 1887, when Verdi’s “Otello” premiered in Milan, his music heightened an already charged story of betrayal and madness. Take the opening storm scene, for example. The orchestra’s percussion section dominates and energizes everything. Later, Verdi’s incessant drums underscore Otello’s frenzy as he smothers his wife in a fit of rage. Not pretty, but powerful.

Set in the late 15th century, “Otello” begins with a roiling storm pummeling the shores of Cyprus. A decorated Venetian general and governor of the island, Otello returns with his triumphant fleet. They have defeated the hated Turks and life looks good.

But things turn sour quickly as Iago, Otello’s ensign, plots the general’s demise. One of the most thoroughly crafted villains in literature and opera, Iago seethes with hatred. Expecting advancement, he has been passed over for a younger, less intelligent man. Cassio, whom Iago disdains, will be promoted instead.

Throughout, we see Iago’s mind at work. Originally that was Shakespeare’s genius, and the Verdi-Boito collaboration employs that self-disclosing trope in the opera. He reveals his plot against Cassio and, ultimately, Otello.

First Iago instigates a fight between Cassio and Roderigo, a young man who happens to secretly love Otello’s beautiful wife, Desdemona. It doesn’t end well, and Otello retracts Cassio’s advancement. But Act I ends sweetly as husband and wife sing a love duet. It’s pure Verdi, soaring lines that spread out like wings and fold back again in delicious resolution. Sung by tenor Johan Botha and soprano Renée Fleming, life and opera are good.

Iago concocts more mischief in Act II. Apparently, Verdi thought of titling the opera “Iago,” but decided against it because of the fame of Shakespeare’s play. The German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann sings the role that drives the action. Some reviews say he steals the show.

Iago insinuates infidelity between Desdemona and poor Cassio with a simple ruse. Desdemona’s handkerchief, a gift from Otello, falls into the wrong hands. By the end of Act II, Otello believes Iago’s lies, and the great general turns on his wife.

Act III belongs to Otello and the handkerchief. He’s alternately consumed by anger, disbelief and self-pity as Desdemona’s betrayal seems true. In his desperation, Otello sings an extended version of “Why me?”

Venetian ambassadors arrive and call Otello back to the mainland and appoint Cassio governor. Musically complex and psychologically brilliant, the scene explodes when Otello loses control, hurls insults at everyone, shoves Desdemona to the floor and clears the room. Only Iago stands by with a conspiratorial smirk as the general collapses.

Act IV finds Desdemona in her bedchamber. She sings an aria about a forsaken woman then a prayer, the famous “Ave Maria,”and falls asleep. Otello enters and wakes her with a kiss, a prelude to one of the most horrific scenes in opera.

With news of Cassio killing Roderigo, Emilia, Desdemona’s handmaid, desperately enters and Iago’s plot is finally revealed. Otello recognizes Desdemona’s innocence and kills himself.

In this sumptuous revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s original 1994 staging, expect palatial rooms, period dress and a spectacular opening storm.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story