Rossini's Overlooked 'Otello'

fromWDAV

Rossini's operatic version of Shakespeare's Othello came long before Verdi's, and is now rarely performed.

hide captionRossini's operatic version of Shakespeare's Othello came long before Verdi's, and is now rarely performed.

Wikimedia Commons

It's often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when it comes to music there are times when that flattery winds up more famous than its inspiration.

For example, who comes to mind when the soul hit "Respect" is mentioned? Aretha Franklin, right? Well, fair enough. Still, the first version of the tune was actually written and released a couple of years earlier than Aretha's — by Otis Redding. He was a legend in his own right, but Redding's original version of "Respect" is sometimes, well, disrespected.

The same thing happened to a legendary opera composer when Giuseppe Verdi's Otello was premiered in 1887. That opera quickly became a landmark among musical settings of Shakespeare. But Verdi wasn't the first great composer to score a hit with an opera based on Othello — it had already been done seven decades earlier by Gioachino Rossini.

Rossini's Otello seldom gets its due in today's theaters. And it may have been overshadowed not just by Verdi's opera, but also by a couple of Rossini's own works. Its 1816 debut was sandwiched between the premieres of two immensely popular Rossini comedies: The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola.

The Hit Single

Like Verdi, Rossini composed a beautiful "Willow Song" for Desdemona (soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci) in the final act. But in Rossini's opera, the song turns into a scene all its own. Twice, Desdemona seems unable to finish and turns to her companion Emilia (mezzo-soprano José Maria Lo Monaco), who finally leaves Desdemona alone as the sequence quietly ends.

Later on, lovers of both music and Shakespeare may have decided that Verdi's opera simply hews more closely to the original play. But, while Rossini's Otello may stray a bit from Shakespeare at the start, by the time the opera's last act begins, the composer and the bard seem joined at the hip in a hair-raising finale that rivals even Verdi's masterful tragedy.

The B Side

In the middle of Act Two, the opera turns on a crucial duet, when Iago (tenor José Manuel Zapta) convinces Otello (tenor John Osborn) that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Otello begins the scene with the ironic words "Non m'inganno" — "I am not deceived."

The final act of Rossini's Otello was also a significant moment both in Rossini's career and for opera as a whole. The drama's first two acts are in a fairly traditional opera seria style. But with his third act, Rossini seems to enter a whole new world of freely flowing dramatic expression, carried by intensely emotional music. Even the subject matter was daring. Early 19th-century operas almost always had happy endings, even if they had to be engineered using preposterous plot twists. But, as in Shakespeare's play, the end of Rossini's opera is both tragic and disturbing, even today.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone present's Rossini's Otello from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris, with tenor John Osborne in the title role and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as Desdemona, in a production led by conductor Evelino Pidò.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Otello'

As ACT ONE begins, the Doge of Venice honors Otello, a Moorish general returning from a victorious battle. Otello accepts the accolades, but all he really wants is to be with the woman he loves, Desdemona. The two have pledged themselves to one another, but they did it secretly, knowing her father would disapprove.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, who sings Desdemona.

hide captionAnna Caterina Antonacci, who sings Desdemona.

Alvaro Yanès/courtesy of the Theatre Champs-Elysées

Other are characters are also standing in Otello's way. His lieutenant, Iago, and the Doge's son, Rodrigo, are both jealous of Otello's popularity and power. And Rodrigo is also in love with Desdemona.

Even Desdemona herself is uncertain about the future. She had written a letter to Otello, renewing her pledge to him. But it was intercepted by her father, Elmiro, who wants her to marry Rodrigo. Now, Desdemona thinks Otello may be having second thoughts — though Emilia, her lady-in-waiting, says that if Otello truly loves her, nothing else matters.

Iago has other ideas. He now has possession of Desdemona's letter to Otello, and decides he can use it to turn Otello against her. And there are more plots underway. Elmiro also has a grudge against Otello. He tells Rodrigo that he's free to marry Desdemona — and in return, asks Rodrigo to tell the Doge that Otello is a traitor.

Elmiro then goes to Desdemona, and says he has chosen a husband for her, but won't say who it is. People gather to celebrate the betrothal. But when Desdemona discovers that she's been given to Rodrigo, she resists, and Elmiro threatens to punish her if she doesn't agree to his wishes.

The situation worsens when Otello arrives and sees Desdemona with Rodrigo. He announces to everyone that he and Desdemona have already pledged their love, and Desdemona stands by him. This enrages Elmiro. He drags Desdemona away, while Rodrigo and Otello exchange threats as the first act ends.

Who's Who

John Osborn ......................... Otello
Anna Caterina Antonacci ... Desdemona
Dmitry Korchak ................ Roderigo
José Manuel Zapata .............. Iago
Marco Vinco ....................... Elmiro
José Maria Lo Monaco .......... Emila

Lyon Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Evelino Pidò, conductor

In ACT TWO, Desdemona is still resisting Rodrigo's love, but she's worried that Otello might be having second thoughts. And Otello does have some concerns. Alone, he wonders if it was wise to risk his fame and popularity by angering Rodrigo and Elmiro.

Iago then joins Otello, who makes the mistake of trusting him. Iago has already hinted that Desdemona may have been unfaithful. Otello wants proof, and Iago produces Desdemona's passionate letter. Because they declared their love secretly, the letter never mentions Otello's name. So Otello, not knowing it was intended for him, believes that he's been betrayed, and vows to get even.

When Rodrigo appears, he and Otello argue. When Desdemona enters, both men accuse her of infidelity, and Otello says he can prove it. Desdemona collapses in anguish as the two men go off to fight it out.

Later, Desdemona is joined by some friends, who tell her that Otello has survived the duel with Rodrigo. But she's then confronted by her father. Elmiro says that she has betrayed his honor. Desdemona asks for his pity, but instead he denounces her.

As ACT THREE opens, Desdemona is at home, in her bedroom. Otello has been banished and Emilia, Desdemona's lady-in-waiting, tries to comfort her. After hearing a gondolier singing a lonely song in the distance, Desdemona responds with a ballad of her own, the beautiful "Willow Song."

Emilia leaves her alone. Desdemona prays that Otello will return to her, and falls asleep. Otello does return, entering through a secret door. But he is still convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him. As he approaches her bed, he draws a dagger to kill her.

At first he hesitates — struck by her beauty. But then, as she dreams about Otello, Desdemona whispers some words of passion in her sleep. Otello assumes she's dreaming of Rodrigo. As he's about to stab her, Desdemona wakes up. Seeing Otello with the knife, she tells him she's innocent, and still loves him. Otello refuses to believe it and mocks her, saying that Iago is about to kill her lover, Rodrigo.

Hearing Iago's name, Desdemona realizes that he has been the cause of all her trouble, and cries out in anguish. Otello thinks she's reacting to his news about Rodrigo, and stabs Desdemona to death.

Otello then hears knocking at the front door and leaves the room to investigate. It's Lucio, one of his aides. Otello asks if Iago has succeeded in killing Rodrigo. Lucio says no, Rodrigo survived. Instead, Iago was mortally wounded, and confessed everything before he died, revealing Desdemona's innocence.

Before Otello can react, the Doge arrives with Elmiro. The Doge pardons Otello, and Elmiro — not knowing what has just happened — grants Otello Desdemona's hand in marriage. Realizing his mistake, Otello says yes, he'll be happy to join Desdemona. Then he draws the dagger again, and kills himself as the opera ends.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.