Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare
First performed: 1887 A military base in Cyprus, close to the sea
A violent storm is raging. The Moor Otello, governor of Cyprus in command of the occupying Venetian forces, is expected but he is still perilously at sea. On shore, his troops and the townspeople anxiously await news. His ship safely reaches port and he triumphantly announces the destruction of the Turkish fleet. During the evening’s celebrations Otello’s quartermaster, Iago, persuades Roderigo, who is in love with Otello’s wife, Desdemona, that she will soon tire of the Moor. Iago declares that he hates Cassio, who has been made captain before him, and Otello for promoting him. He convinces Roderigo that Cassio, too, desires Desdemona. Iago gets Cassio drunk, Roderigo and Cassio insult each other, and a brawl starts during which Montano, the civilian governor of the island, is injured. To compound the confusion, Iago tells Roderigo to rouse the sleeping population with cries of rebellion. Alarm sirens bring out Otello who demands an explanation. Iago disingenuously implies that Cassio was the cause of the trouble and Otello summarily dismisses him from his post. Iago is dispatched to restore order to the town. Left alone under the now serene evening sky, Otello and Desdemona express their love.
A few days later Posing as Cassio’s friend, Iago suggests that Desdemona could intercede with Otello on Cassio’s behalf. Alone, he reveals the extent of his moral anarchy. Accompanied by Iago’s wife Emilia, Desdemona enters: Iago encourages Cassio to seize his chance. Iago suggests that Desdemona’s smiles and nodding in Cassio’s company will be enough to stir up Otello’s jealousy and drag him to his ruin. Otello enters and Iago skilfully implies that something illicit has just occurred. Otello demands to know the whole truth, but Iago warns him of the dangers of jealousy. Iago countermands his commander’s demands for instant proof: it’s too early for evidence; Otello should scrutinize her behaviour for clues. Hired by Cassio, the townspeople pay homage to Desdemona, and she begins to intercede on his behalf; Otello, now genuinely suspicious, furiously rejects her. He angrily throws aside the handkerchief offered by Desdemona to soothe his burning forehead. Iago snatches it from Emilia, who has picked it up. He forms a plan to leave it in Cassio’s quarters. He carefully prepares Otello for this circumstantial evidence of her infidelity by recounting what Cassio once said during his sleep. This detonates an explosive rage in Otello and Iago joins him in an oath of revenge.
Some days later Envoys from Venice are about to land. Iago has sent for Cassio in order that Otello, unobserved, can hear and watch him. When the unsuspecting Desdemona appears and inopportunely mentions Cassio’s cause, Otello demands to see the particular handkerchief that he thinks she gave to Cassio. His furious accusation stuns Desdemona, who tries in vain to make him believe her innocence. Otello reflects that this torment has reduced his military triumphs to ashes. Iago arranges for him to eavesdrop on his gossip with Cassio. Otello assumes that they are talking about his wife when Cassio actually refers to his mistress, Bianca. Cassio also shows Iago the beautiful handkerchief he has just discovered in his quarters. Otello is now convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful. When Cassio has gone, Iago offers to dispatch him and suggests that Otello should smother his wife in her adulterous bed – an idea which wins Iago his longed for promotion. Lodovico, the leader of the envoys, brings Otello’s recall to Venice and the appointment of Cassio as governor of the island. The Moor orders preparations to begin for an immediate departure. He then publicly insults Desdemona, throwing her to the ground to the horror of the crowd and the Venetian representatives. Iago points out to Roderigo that, if he kills Cassio quickly, Otello’s and Desdemona’s departure will have to be postponed until the appointment of a new governor. As a final humiliation, Otello curses Desdemona. Growing more and more incoherent, Otello collapses.
Later that night Attended by Emilia, Desdemona is getting ready to leave Cyprus. She recalls a song that one of her mother’s maids used to sing, says her prayers and goes to sleep. Otello enters and, despite Desdemona’s final denials of infidelity, smothers her. Emilia returns to inform Otello that Cassio has killed Roderigo and has himself survived. With her last breath Desdemona claims to have killed herself, but Otello affirms that he killed her because she was unfaithful. Emilia reproves him for believing Iago’s deceit and calls for help. Cassio, Lodovico and Iago burst in. Iago’s treachery is uncovered but he evades an explanation and escapes. Otello, now fully aware of what he has done, stabs himself, embraces Desdemona for the last time, then dies.
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