Otello

Last night I went to the splendid Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see the production of Verdi’s Otello currently being staged by Welsh National Opera. The Opera is of course based on Shakespeare’s play Othello; I never met an Italian who could pronounce “th” properly, which presumably explains the change in spelling.

The Wales Millennium Centre is an excellent venue for Opera, both because it has very comfortable seats (quite necessary for operas of three hours’ duration, like Otello) and is also quite heavily subsidised. Last night’s tickets were about a quarter of the price you would expect to pay for the stalls at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Unfortunately the centre is currently having financial problems, which I hope can be resolved.

I know many music experts – including Rob Cowan, who I listen to every morning on BBC Radio 3 – regard Otello as not only Verdi’s greatest masterpiece, but also the high point of all Italian grand opera. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it is certainly a compelling work both musically and dramatically. Watching last night’s performance it struck me how well theatrical tragedies suit adaption to the operatic form. The whole point of a tragedy is that the fall is inevitable. The hero contains within himself the seeds of his own destruction which, in the case of Otello is born of his uncontrollable jealousy.

But in order to have its full effect on the audience there must be time for the depth of impending calamity to eat into the audience. The pace of opera fits very well with this requirement. Building slowly but inexorably to the gut-wrenching climax, the best Opera achieves the kind of intensity that in Sport you can only get with Test cricket.

Verdi wrote this Opera in 1887 (when he was 74) and it represented a glorious return from self-imposed retirement. He went on to wrote another Shakespeare-inspired masterpiece, Falstaff, when he was 80.

But is Otello so very good? I think there’s one big problem with it, which is the role of the villain Iago. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago has many more lines than Otello and this gives this character time to develop into a believable, and sometimes even appealing, individual. In the operatic version he is just a bad guy who is bad for the sake of it. His pointless cruelty makes him completely two-dimensional and he therefore doesn’t work for me at all as a motivating force behind the plot.

On the good side, the production looked great, especially the giant golden lion that appeared in Act 3. The costumes were good too, set in period in a very traditional provincial-opera kind of way but easy on the eye. The chorus of Welsh National Opera was outstanding and the principals all did very well. Amanda Roocroft was an especially tender and vulnerable Desdemona.

And then there was Otello himself, played by Denis O’Neill. Sixty years old but in very fine voice, and with lots of stage presence, my only problem with him was that he’s a bit too short and portly to be playing the fearsome warrior leader. Iago (David Kempster) towered over him almost comically in their scenes together. If Iago hated Otello so much why didn’t he just kill him? He looked as though he could easily beat him in a fight.

The orchestra played well and the final act in particular was paced superbly to achieve real dramatic power. Otello strangles Desdemona and then, when he realises the treachery of Iago and the innocence of the wife he has just murdered, he kills himself with a dagger.

What did you expect from an Opera, a happy ending?

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6 Responses to “Otello”

  1. I love living vicariously through the eyes of others when it comes to this opera, “Otello”; I just pray I don’t become obsessed. I am an African-Caribbean filmmaker who is working on a feature film about the opera with a fictitious first dramatic tenor-of-color. Can you image this didactic piece of work ha snever been performed by ANY BLACK TENOR?! How paradoxical.

    Around 1879, Verdi’s publisher, Giuliano Ricordi, pursuaded Verdi to write the score for this opera and Verdi would be assisted by an upstart bloggist (journalist) Arrigo Boito. Verdi was not a big fan of Boito because some years earlier, he wrote some scathing reviews of his work. Verdi eventually conceded and in 1880, he began to en the score for “Otello” (what was known to these men as the ‘chocolate project’). The opera first debuted February 7th, 1887 at La Scala Milan, under the baton of Franco Faccio. Verdi, the composer, who knew his own music quite well, wanted an unknown tenor to sing the role, Giambattista di Negri. However, the manager of La Scala wanted to play it safe and decided on the super robust and powerful, dramatic sound of Francesco Tamagno. Since then, this opera has experienced the magnificent sounds of the world’s greatest squillantis, dramatic and helden tenors–from Tamagno, Martinelli, de Reske, Zanelli, Melchior, Slezak, Pertile, Vinay, Del Monaco, Blachut, Bonisolli, Lauri-Volpe, Vickers, Atlantov, Giacomini, Domingo, etc…

    In almost one hundred and twenty-five years, classical operatic history has yet to record the voice of a first tenore dramatico to record the immortal work of Verdi and Boito. At least the theatrical work of Shakespeare has had some historcal justice with the works of Ira Aldridge (1833), Paul Robeson (1919), Earle Hyman (1940), William Warfield, James Earl Jones, Sir Willard White (the great operatic bass-baritone), etc…

    It is my hope that my film, “Ideale”, present a new, exciting and refreshing view of this opera.

    Frantz T. Excellent
    f_excellent@hotmail.com

  2. telescoper Says:

    I hadn’t realised the role had never been sung by a black tenor, but I hope that before too long it will. I’ve seen plenty of bass nor baritone roles cast with excellent black singers, but never a tenor part. I don’t know why.
    The other issue is that Ot(h)ello is actually a Moor, which is difficult to interpret but I always thought it means North African Arab or Berber origin.

  3. Well, technically an Italian wrote Othello, so isn’t it rather the English-speaking folks mispronouncing it? Then “Otello” would serve it’s purpose in reminding you of the correct sound…

  4. telescoper Says:

    Shakespeare wrote Othello and I don’t think he was Italian. The story is based on an earlier story by Cinthio “Un Capitano Moro” but the corresponding character in that story is not named. In fact the only name to survive in the Shakespearean version is “Disdemona”.

  5. David Harries Says:

    Fabulous opera, fabulous production, great singing. I agree with the review (abve). A very good libretto by Arrigo Boito – compare Falstaff, performed by WNO recently. Boito adapts the play very skilfully. Yes, Iago’s role loses out – it is simplified – Boito makes Iago’s attitude more obvious by giving him a solo about his belief in a cruel God. However, there are so many good things in the operatic version, eg the love duet. Act 4 was very moving – actually, the music reminded me slightly of Wagner in the scene setting (who is different and whom I do not appreciate as much).

  6. [...] couldn’t wish for an opera more different in style and substance than Saturday’s Otello, although I suppose both operas would probably be classed as tragedies. Gone are the opulent sets [...]

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