Opera Scotland

Othello Otello, ossia Il Moro di Venezia; or The Moor of Venice

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Gioachino Rossini (born Pesaro, 29 February 1792; died Paris, 13 November 1868)


Marchese Francesco Berio di Salsa (1765-1820)


Tragedy (1604-05) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)



First Performance: Naples (Teatro del Fondo), 4 December 1816.

First Performance in UK: London (King's Theatre), 16 May 1822.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Theatre Royal), 11 December 1832.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.



Rossini's treatment of the Othello subject enjoyed a long period of success, perhaps more than any other of his serious operas apart from William Tell. The title role was a favourite vahicle for several of the great tenors of the era, including Nozzari, Garcia, Donzelli, David, Rubini, Mario and Tamberlik. Desdemona was sung by Pasta, Malibran, Grisi, Viardot and Nilsson. However the immediate impact of Verdi's version in 1887 saw Rossini's piece vanish from regular performance, so that twentieth century revivals were rare.

The musical highlights include Desdemona's Willow Song, a wonderful example of pure bel canto, which has a prelude uncannily like the intro to Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene - Verdi clearly knew his Rossini. There is a superbly virtuosic tenor showpiece for Rodrigo. This character, less important in the Boito/Verdi adaptation, is the main opponent in Rossini, as a rival for Desdemona, and is a punishingly high-flying part. Jago (sic) is still the villain, but is a less prominent role. As with the other Naples operas, a bunch of good tenors is a necessity.

The adaptation of the plot is less brilliantly engineered than Boito's for Verdi. Indeed, apart from the last act, it is a fairly slapdash version of the play. Where Shakespeare introduces the characters and plot for one act in Venice before moving the other four to Cyprus, Boito starts off in Cyprus with just a few reminiscences of earlier events. Berio, by contrast, keeps the action in Venice throughout, which at least allows an unusually lyrical gondolier to sing offstage as Desdemona prepares for her doom. The novel feature of the opera is simply the fact that Otello does actually murder his wife at the end.



Otello, an African in the service of Venice (tenor)

Desdemona, the lover and secret wife of Otello (soprano)

Elmiro, father of Desdemona (bass)

Rodrigo, Desdemona's unsuccessful suitor (tenor)

Jago, secret enemy of Otello (tenor)

Emilia, Desdemona's confidante (mezzo-soprano)

Doge of Venice (tenor)

Lucio, Otello's confidante (tenor)

A Gondolier (tenor)


Plot Summary

Otello is greeted with enthusiasm by the citizens as he returns from his victory over the Turks in Cyprus. His apparent modesty is distrusted by his follower Rodrigo, who is encouraged in this by Jago. A love letter written by Desdemona to an unnamed person, but intercepted by her father, has fallen into Jago's hands and he decides to use it for his own purposes.

Desdemona is wretched as she loves Otello, who is loathed by her father. Elmiro believes the letter, written to Otello, was actually intended for Rodrigo. He plans for the marriage of his daughter to Rodrigo to go ahead. Jago, his hatred caused by Desdemona's earlier rejection of him, starts to plot. As the betrothal ceremony is about to start, Otello enters and is spurred to jealousy. Desdemona admits her commitment to Otello, and she is dragged away by her furious father.

Desdemona admits to Rodrigo that she is in fact married to Otello. She prepares to attempt to warn her husband of what she assumes to be Rodrigo's fury. Jago shows the letter to Otello and convinces him that Rodrigo was the intended recipient. Rodrigo himself now enters in an attempt to bring about a reconciliation with Otello. His overtures are spurned, and they go off to fight a duel. Desdemona is again chastised by her father.

As Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed, a gondolier sings from the canal outside. Full of forboding, she is left alone. Otello enters. He has commissioned Jago to kill Rodrigo. His revenge will be completed by killing his wife. She awakes and he stabs her. Lucio now arrives with the news that Rodrigo has survived the attack. Jago's treachery has been revealed and he is to executed. The Doge and Rodrigo now arrive but Otello is unable to accept their attempts at reconciliation and kills himself.



OPERA RARA (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1999

Conductor: David Parry

Philharmonia Orchestra

Bruce Ford (Otello), Elizabeth Futral (Desdemona), William Matteuzzi (Rodrigo).

The presentation here is up to Opera Rara's usual standard. We have the complete opera, of course, but also get several extras from the revised version performed in Rome a couple of years after the premiere. The major one is the complete lieto fine - a 'happy ending' required by the Roman censorship. Most of the music is adapted by the composer from other works, and none the worse for that. The background notes, full of fascinating information, are also of very high quality.

Of course the overall standard of performance is also high. Ford and Futral have higher-placed 'brighter' sounding voices that Carreras and Von Stade in the older set - not better or worse, just different. William Matteuzzi's career was built on these fiendishly difficult high tenor roles, and he is hard to beat.


PHILIPS (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1978

Conductor: Jésus Lopez-Cobos

Philharmonia Orchestra

José Carreras (Otello), Frederica von Stade (Desdemona), Salvatore Fisichella (Rodrigo).

When this recording was issued it did a lot to rescue the work from near oblivion. It is dramatically conducted and Carreras is still at his vocal peak, producing some lovely moments. Sicilian tenor Salvatore Fisichella was little-known at the time, but tackled his fiendishly difficult roulades fearlessly. Best of all is Frederica von Stade, whose Willow Song is just amazing. It only takes 2CDs, but then it does not contain the fascinating extras that the Opera Rara set provides.

The Cast

 lover and secret wife of Otello
 father of Desdemona
 secret enemy of Otello
 an African in the service of Venice
 Desdemona's unsuccessful suitor

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