Program notes by George W. Martin
What is Otello about? In a word, Love. No one disputes that. But about how the hero reacts when he feels love has failed, there is disagreement or at least ambiguity of view. And it happened that while Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, were composing their opera (1879-1887), two famous Italian actors performed across Europe two different views of that aspect of the play, views with which Verdi and Boito were familiar, and between which Verdi decisively chose one over the other.
But first, a word or two about the hero in both Shakespeare and Verdi. Shakespeare calls Othello a Moor, which today means someone of Muslim faith and descent, but has Othello several times in the play refer to his coloring as “black,” a term which today suggests Negro descent. But it seems the Elizabethans knew little about African geography and races and used both terms interchangeably. And Verdi and Boito were equally unspecific about Otello’s background. He is merely in origin African, not Venetian.
Shakespeare specifies no age for the man, but he does describe his long career in service to the Venetian State and has him describe himself as “declined into the vale of years.” Hence, by the standards of either the fifteenth century or Elizabethan England, he is elderly. On this point, Verdi and Boito in their production book for the opera are specific: Otello “is over forty years old,” which even in the nineteenth century was “getting on.” As to his wife, we are told only that she is young – perhaps twenty – beautiful, pure, and noble. But she is a woman, not a girl. For in the play, summoned by the Doge of Venice to explain her marriage, she respectfully but forcefully tells her father that she has left him and his house to share her life with another.
There is also a difference in background. Othello is a self-made man – years of service in the Venetian army – whereas Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian Senator. In the play Othello describes himself as “rude of speech,” “little blest with the soft phrase of peace,” and acknowledges that “little of this great world can I speak” — in short, a bluff, honest, somewhat naïve soldier, uncomfortable in Venetian high society. Yet, as Shakespeare wrote and Verdi/Boito paraphrased in their first act’s love duet, Otello says: “You loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved you that you did pity them.” Lines which, with only a change in pronouns to suit the speaker, Desdemona repeats.
Of the two Italian actors associated with the play the elder was Ernesto Rossi (1827-96) who portrayed an Othello who, upon thinking his wife unfaithful, reverted to an African savage, acting with ever-increasing ferocity. Initially, before Iago unsettled his mind with hints of betrayal, he was calm, dignified, loving. But then, after the thought took hold, he began to prowl the stage with bursts of uncontrolled passion, fury alternating with groans of agony, ever more violent in speech and act, and gradually replacing Venetian with African clothing. Finally, in murdering Desdemona, instead of smothering her with a pillow, he choked her, slowly, for five minutes. Henry James, after a performance, noted: “The interesting thing to me was to observe the Italian conception of the part – to see how crude it was, how little it expressed the hero’s moral side, his depth, his dignity – anything more than his being a creature terrible in mere tantrums. The great point was seizing Iago’s head and whacking it half-a-dozen times on the floor, and then flinging him twenty yards away.”
Whereas Tommaso Salvini (1829-1915), though he, too, prowled the stage and threw Iago to the floor, emphasized more the depth and moral side to Othello’s character. The man’s frenzy was less that he was cuckold than an ideal of love had failed, an ideal that included far more than sensual passion. The murder of Desdemona then became not the revenge of an outraged beast but a sacrifice to that ideal of love, and Salvini smothered Desdemona swiftly, out of sight, behind a bed curtain. And then, upon learning of his error and with his immediate judgment upon himself, he regained some moral stature.
In composing, Verdi moved toward Salvini’s interpretation, and as the opera neared production, he told the costume designer that Otello throughout must remain a soldier of Venice — no reversion to African tribal clothing. Thus for Verdi, race, however much noised by Iago, was less important in Otello’s breakdown than age, character, and background. Or, as in the play Othello asks others to remember him: “Speak of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplex’d in the extreme.” And Verdi, by bringing back the love duet’s music, sends us out of theatre thinking not of jealous revenge but of a great and tragic love.
George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.