Major Operas | Otello by Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic

Verdi’s late masterpiece, Otello, completed when he was 74, was the second of his three operas taken from the plays of Shakespeare. The libretto by Arrigo Boito dispensed with the Shakespeare’s opening scene, set in Venice and concentrated the action on Cyprus, giving it an almost claustrophobic intensity.

Long considered Verdi’s greatest opera and his most outstanding achievement, Otello was written at a time when the composer believed he had reached his peak with Aida and was being upstaged by Wagner’s Teutonic grandeur, which was dominating the European music scene. Verdi was wrong on both counts. His Otello fulfilled Wagner’s concept of a ‘total work of art’ in more ways than one. Music fused with drama and each scene with the next, with few set-piece arias or ensembles like those found in Verdi’s previous works. The orchestral picture of a storm off the coast of Cyprus has thrilled audiences ever since the opera was first performed at La Scala, Milan on 5 February 1887. Yet there are also intimate moments and sublime expressions of love between Otello and his doomed wife Desdemona that scale great heights of lyricism and melodic beauty.

Composed: 1884–85
Premiered: 1887, Milan
Libretto by Arrigo Boito, after William Shakespeare

Act I

The island of Cyprus is under Venetian rule. The people wait at the port for their governor, Otello. The ship arrives and the people rejoice as Otello announces their victory. Iago, Otello’s ensign, swears revenge on his master for promoting Cassio to captain. He conspires with Roderigo, who loves Otello’s wife Desdemona, to wreak revenge on Cassio and cause Otello’s downfall. Iago insinuates to Roderigo that Cassio admires Desdemona and provokes a duel between them. The retiring governor Montano intervenes, while Iago causes a commotion. Otello arrives, angry that Montano has been wounded and Desdemona’s sleep disturbed. He retracts Cassio’s promotion and bids everyone leave.

Act II

Iago reveals to Cassio that Desdemona alone can persuade Otello to restore his promotion. Iago muses on his nihilistic view of the world. He sees Cassio approach Desdemona in the garden and suggests to Otello that Cassio has designs on his wife. Desdemona pleads Cassio’s innocence but Otello is inflamed by jealousy. Desdemona offers to wipe his brow with a handkerchief – an early love token from Otello. He snatches it and throws it to the ground; Emilia, Iago’s wife, retrieves it. A bewildered Desdemona begs forgiveness, while Iago procures the handkerchief with a view to planting it in Cassio’s house. Otello asks to be left alone but Iago remains behind to inform him that Cassio has spoken of Desdemona in his sleep. He also mentions having seen Cassio in possession of the handkerchief. Furious, Otello swears vengeance.


Iago tells Otello that he can prove Desdemona’s infidelity. Desdemona again approaches Otello about pardoning Cassio; he demands to see the handkerchief. When she admits she cannot produce it, he accuses her of infidelity and sends her away. Iago persuades Otello...

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