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Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi and Shakespeare

Verdi adored Shakespeare. Besides the three operas he took from him—MacbethOtello, and Falstaff—he considered (though briefly) doing a Tempest or Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. He considered for a very long time, and came near to creating, an opera from his favorite play, King Lear.

He had not been to England when he composed Macbeth, but he had acquired, from friends like Andrea Maffei, solid information on the way Macbeth was staged in the country of its origin. For Macbeth, he cut the play down to opera size himself, creating a prose synopsis for his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, to versify. 

Verdi worked himself so deeply into Shakespeare’s mind that in revising Macbeth for a Paris premiere, he took the gem of this performance—Lady Macbeth’s aria “La luce langue”—directly from Shakespeare, in collaboration with his wife:

“Verdi himself actually wrote the text for this aria—not only the detailed prose version he first sent to [his librettist] Piave on December 15, but the verses themselves, to which the librettist made only a few minor changes.”

Illustrations from "Otello" by Ludovico Marchetti (1909)

Scala di Milano - direttore Riccardo Muti
Otello - Placido Domingo
Iago - Leo Nucci
Cassio - Cesare Catani
Desdemona - Barbara Frittoli
Emilia - Rossana Rinaldi

In the history of opera Verdi’s Otello is really something of a miracle. In 1871, Aida had been produced. Close to sixty then, and full of honors, the composer had apparently retired. Younger men were coming up. Verdi no longer competed. Some even thought him a little old-fasbioned. Then—fifteen years later—on February 5, 1887 - Otello was produced. It was a new opera, in a new style, full of vitality—and the composer was in his seventy-fourth year!

Verdi had, as his collaborator, one of those very composers who once thought him old-fashioned. This was Arrigo Boito, composer of Mefistofele. But this time Boito did not compose a note. He was the librettist; that is, he adapted Shakespeare's great tragedy for Verdi's operatic masterpiece. A fine job he did, too. In most operatic adaptations of Shakespeare very little is left of the great poetry and drama, but Boito managed to maintain most of the dramatic qualities of the original, and Verdi's music is completely worthy of one of the finest tragedies in any language.




Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto in Italian by Arrigo Boito based on Shakespeare's play

Otello, a Moor, general in the Venetian Army

Desdemona, his wife

Iago, his ensign

Cassio, his lieutenant

Emila, Iago's wife 


Time: end of 15th century
Place: Cyprus

First performance at Milan, February 5, 1887



Tenor. Moor of Venice and general in the Venetian army. Married to Desdemona. He is appointed to succeed Montano as the new governor in Cyprus. His ensign, Iago, is jealous of him and the young lieutenant Cassio, and makes Otello suspicious of a relationship, totally innocent, between Desdemona and Cassio. Racked with jealousy, Otellosmothers Desdemona. Finding that his suspicions were unfounded and that Iago was plotting against him, Otello stabs himself, and dies next to his beloved Desdemona. Arias: Esultate! (‘Rejoice!’); Ora e per sempre, addio ('Now and forever, farewell'); Dio, mi potevi scagliar ('God, it has pleased you to heap on me'); duet (with Desdemona): Gia nella notte ('Now in the silent night'). Created (1887) by Francesco Tamagno.

Mario Del Monaco: Verdi - Otello, 'Dio mi potevi scagliar'


Soprano. Wife of Otello. Desdemona is deeply in love with and loyal to her husband, who is jealous and needlessly suspicious of her relationships with other men. Iago, anxious to supplant Cassio as Otello's second-in-command, sets about convincing Otello of Desdemona's affair with Cassio. In her innocence, and at Iago's suggestion, Desdemona intercedes on behalf of the demoted Cassio, further fuelling Otello's suspicions. She forcefully denies her husband's accusations, but he insults her and strikes her. She gives him a handkerchief to wipe his brow, which he throws on the ground. It is retrieved by her maid Emilia, wife of Iago, who takes it from her and uses it as further evidence against Cassio. As Emilia helps her prepare for retirement that night, Desdemona thinks of death. She sings a song she remembers her mother's maid singing (the Willow Song) and prays to the Virgin Mary. As she settles to sleep, Otello enters, leans over her and kisses her, but she senses that he is going to kill her. She pleads her innocence and asks him to be merciful—she wants to live. Otello smothers her with a pillow as Emilia comes back into the room and shouts for help. But Desdemona is dying. Otello learns of Iago's treachery and his wife's innocence, stabs himself, and dies next to her. Arias: Piangea cantando … Salce! Salce! (‘She wept, singing … Willow! Willow!’); Ave Maria (‘Hail, Mary’); duet (with Otello): Mio superbo guerrier!…(‘My proud warrior!’); quartet (with Otello, Emilia, and Iago); Dammi la dolce e lieta parola del perdono (‘Grant me the sweet and happy word of pardon’). Created (1887) by Romilda Pantaleoni.

Renata Tebaldi in Verdi's Otello - Ave Maria


Baritone. Husband of Emilia (who is Desdemonas lady-in-waiting) ana Oteflo's ensign. He hates both Otello and the young lieutenant Cassio, promoted by Otello over his head. He uses Roderigo, a young Venetian hopelessly in love with Desdemona (Otello’s wife), to get Cassio demoted, Iago swears an oath of faithfulness to Otello, and then sets about providing false evidence to suggest that Desdemona and Cassio are lovers. He forces Emilia to give him Desdemona's handkerchief which he then shows to Otello, implying that it was found in Cassio's possession. He so convinces the jealous Moor that Otello plans the murder of both Cassio and Desdemona. Iago undertakes to dispose of Cassio—he will force Roderigo into killing him—and Otello will deal with his wife. Otello suffocates Desdemona, but then finds out that Cassio has killed Roderigo and that the stories are all made up by Iago. Aria: Credo in un Dio crudel ('I believe in a cruel God'); Era la notte, Cassio dormi ('In the night, Cassio slept’); duet (with Otello—the swearing of their oath): Si, per ciel marmoreo giuro! ('Yes, by the marbled heavens, I swear!'). Created (1887) by Victor Maurel.

Bryn Terfel - Credo in un Dio crudel - Otello (Verdi)


Tenor. Otello's young lieutenant, hated by Iago because Otello has promoted Cassio in preference to himself. He encourages Cassio to drink too much and in the ensuing drunken brawl Cassio injures Montano and is dismissed by Otello and replaced with Iago. Iago now contrives to persuade Otello that Desdemona is attracted by Cassio. First he suggests that Cassio asks Desdemona to intercede on his behalf with Otello. Then he arranges for Otello to overhear Cassio talking and laughing about his latest mistress, which Otello believes (wrongly) to be Desdemona; and finally to support Otello's suspicions, shows him the handkerchief supposedly seen in Cassio's hand, which was Otello's gift to his wife. Convinced, Otello plots to kill both Cassio and Desdemona. Created (1887) by Giovanni Paroli.

Jonas Kaufmann - as Cassio in Otello, act 1


Mezzzo-soprano. Wife of Iago and lady‐in‐waiting to Desdemona. She finally exposes her husband as the instigator of Otello's suspicions, but too late—Otello has killed Desdemona. Created ( 1887 ) by Ginevra Petrovich. 

VERDI - OTELLO - Emilia, wife of Iago - Özay GÜNAY



As it takes longer to sing anything than to say it, Boito had to condense Shakespeare's play. He omitted (excepting for a few references) the entire first act, and so the opera opens on the island of Cyprus. A terrific storm is raging as the population watches Otello's ship battling its way into port. Finally he arrives safely, and he comes on the stage announcing a victory over the storm, and over the Turks, with his great cry, "Esultate!" Then, after a pleasant chorus sung as the people build bonfires, the familiar plot develops quickly enough. Iago, the officer who is jealous of his Moorish general, Otello, is,of course, the villain. He has the support of a foolish young man, Roderigo, who hopes to seduce Otello's beautiful bride, Desdemona. Iago is particularly angry because Cassio, another officer, has been promoted above him, and he now proceeds to get Cassio drunk. It is at this point that Iago sings his drinking song, an appropriately cynical passage in which others join in. Iago, furthermore, manages to provoke a quarrel between Cassia and Montano, another officer, and at the height of the racket, when Montano is wounded, Otello returns to the scene. He dismisses the drunken Cassio for such unsoldierly conduct, and he orders Iago to take over and bring quiet to the city.

And then, when all have gone, the act closes with one of the most beautiful love duets in all of opera. Otello is reunited with his young and deeply loved bride, Desdemona. They recall the details of their strange courtship, and the duet ends as the skies have cleared and the stars shine out. 


Act II of Boito's libretto follows quite closely the plot as it is given in Sbakespeare's Act III. Cassio wants his commission back, and as the act opens off a garden in a hall of the palace. Iago pretends friendship to Cassio and offers some good advice. Go to Otello's wife, Desdemona, he says, and ask her to plead for you. Cassio acts on this advice at once, going into the garden to await the lady. At this point the libretto makes its most striking departure from the play. Iago sings bis great Credo, in which hе tells the audience quite frankly that be believes in a god—but if is a cruel god, and Iago acts accordingly.

And now—almost as though in answer to a prayer—Iago has a piece of rare luck. Otello comes by and sees Cassio in the garden, pleading with Desdemona. "Ha - I like not that,” says Iago, and be begins to sow the seeds of doubt in Otello's mind. Maybe Cassio is spending a little too much time with Desdemona, he suggests. Ob, he does it ever so reluctantly, ever so politely, and in ever so friendly a fashion. But the poison is surely there. A chorus in praise of the gentle Desdemona is now sung by her ladies, by some sailors, and by some children. It almost persuades Otello that he is foolish to doubt his lovely wife for a moment. Unfortunately, when they meet she immediately pleads for Cassio, and Iago's poison begins to work. Otello becomes angry with his wife, and when she tries to wipe his perspiring brow with her handkerchief, he snatches it from her and throws it to the ground. A fine quartet occurs here, for the scene has been watched by both Iago and his wife Emilia, who is Desdemona's lady-in-waiting.

When the women have left; a powerful duet develops between Otello and his false friend Iago. The villain pretends to soothe the wretched General, but before the scene is over, he has suggested a way in which Desdemona may be tested. He says that he has seen Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's possession. (Of course, Iago has it himself at that very moment, for he has recovered it from Emilia, who picked it up.)

If Desdemona cannot produce the handkerchief, suggests Iago subtly, Cassio must have it—and have Desdemona's favor, too. The poor, passionate Otello is now in a fever of doubt and jealousy, and the act closes as their voices join powerfully in a vow of vengeance.


Shortly after the curtain rises, Iago promises to let Otello overhear a conversation with Cassio—Cassio, the man whom be thinks to be Desdemona's lover. But even before this eavesdropping can be arranged, Otello gets more food for bis jealousy. Desdemona again asks that Cassio be restored in Otello's favor. Enraged, the General asks for ms wife's handkerchief, and when she cannot produce it, Otello is more than ever convinced of her guilt. He accuses her boldly, while poor Desdemona, utterly bewildered, pleads her innocence. Finally, he rudely orders her away, and he is badly shaken when Iago returns. The scene is set—says the villain—for the eavesdropping. As Otello bides behind a pillar, Iago engages Cassio in light talk. They are really talking about Bianca, who is Cassio's light-of-love, but Otello, overhearing only snatches of the conversation, thinks they are speaking lightly of his own wife. When, toward the end, Iago produces Desdemona's handkerchief, Otello naturally jumps to the wrong conclusions.

Thus, when an ambassador from Venice is announced, Otello is in a terrible mood. He decides to kill Desdemona that very night. Ironically, at that moment an off-stage chorus hails Otello as the "Lion of St Mark," and the Ambassador from Venice, Lodovico, enters with the whole populace. There is an order from Venice for Otello to return, and for Cassio to take over the governorship of Cyprus. As Otello reads this order, he keeps a wary eye on his wife. He overhears her commenting on Cassio to Lodovico, and before the whole assembly he strikes her and hurls her to the ground. Everyone is deeply shocked, and a fine, impressive ensemble develops as each expresses his own feelings. Finally, Otello orders them all away.

Left alone with Iago, he rants for blood and vengeance. So excited does be become that he falls down in a convulsion. Off-stage, the crowd is again hailing the “Lion of St.Mark.” But on-stage, Iago triumphs over his fallen Ceneral. Ecco il Leone!—"Look at the Lion!" he cries with a poisonous arrogance, and the curtain falls.


The brief, touching, violent, and tragic last act is really a combination of two different scenes from Shakespeare's play. It takes place in Desdemona's bedroom, where, with Emilia's help, she is preparing for bed. She sings a sadly appropriate ballad (The Willow Song) about Barbara, whose lover went mad. Otello apparently has done the same thing. When Emilia leaves, Desdemona utters her very touching prayer—the Ave Maria. She then goes to bed, and a moment or two later (with a sinister passage in the double basses of the orchestra), Otello strides in. He puts out the candle; he kisses her to the melody of the first-act love duet; and then, with a heavy heart, be asks whether she has prayed. Quickly she realizes what is on Otello's mind: he plans to kill her. All her pleas are in vain; everything she gently or fearfully urges is misunderstood; and finally, in terrible rage, he strangles her.

Silence. Then a knnock at the door. It is Emilia, who sees at once what has happened. Yet, Desdemona, with her dying breath, says that she has killed herself. "Liar,” cries Otello,  "'twas I that killed her!" And when Emilia tries to maintain the innocence of the dead, he threatens her, too. It is only when Lodovico, Cassio, Iago, and all the others are summoned by her cries that Otello finally learns the truth. Aghast and heartbroken, he lays down his sword. He goes to the bed, looks tenderly at the wife he had so dearly loved, and takes out a dagger and stabs himself. "Un bacio—un atro bacio," he sings softly, as he takes a final kiss to the music of the earlier kisses.

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