Year of Shakespeare: Verdi’s OtelloOpera, Ballet & MusicalsYear of Shakespeare

  • Stanley Wells

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


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For me, the grand climax of the Year of Shakespeare came with a revival at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s Otello which was first given for the opera’s centenary in 1987. It was a grand climax because this is one of the grandest of all operas, because it was given in the grandest of all British theatres, and because it demands grand forces – a large chorus and orchestra, spectacular staging, and great singers including if possible the world’s finest heroic tenor. It was also a production of a work in which the greatness of the text that Shakespeare wrote is complemented, even challenged, by a musical score which has equal claims to greatness.

All the performances we have been seeing are to some degree or other adaptations of the original plays, altering and usually shortening the texts, many of them translated into languages different from that in which they were written, adopting new sets of theatrical conventions, and making explicit or covert allusions to contemporary political and social issues. In a sense there is no such thing as a Shakespeare play, only an ongoing series of infinitely variable theatrical and other events stimulated by the words that Shakespeare wrote. Each can be enjoyed (or not), and demands to be judged, as a new creation. And operatic adaptation offers its own critical challenges because it is multi-layered, requiring not only adaptation of the text to fit the requirements of musical setting but also a musical setting of the adapted text which makes independent claims to artistic integrity. Add to this the interpretation of the resultant work of art in a period later than that in which it was composed and you have a whole Chinese box of critical complexities.

The first requirement for a Shakespeare opera is an adaptation of the text which, while having its own kind of theatrical validity, allows room for musical creativity. Almost inevitably this requires both abbreviation and simplification. Only one Shakespeare opera – Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – uses Shakespeare’s words virtually unaltered, and even this shortens the play by about a half, opening in the forest not in Athens; similarly Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist, working of course in Italian not in English, starts Otello not in Venice but in Cyprus, though he skilfully incorporates bits of Shakespeare’s first act, such as references to Othello’s account of his martial adventures, into the later scenes. He pares away minor characters, streamlines the plot, and cuts dialogue back to its bare bones so as to allow the music full scope for emotional expressiveness. Boito also creates opportunities for solo arias and other set pieces, such as Iago’s creed – ‘I believe in a cruel god’ –, Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’, and the great love duet climaxing in the words ‘ancora un bacio’- ‘one more kiss’ – which close the first act and recur with devastating effect as Otello, sinking to the ground, sings them over Desdemona’s corpse in the opera’s last moments. And, like the English actor managers of his time, he brings the curtain down on the tragic hero’s last breath.

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Music limits interpretation. That is to say, the music to which Verdi sets Boito’s words – assuming that it is performed as written – goes a long way to determining the style and impact of the performance. An actor speaking Shakespeare’s verse has more leeway for interpretation than the singer of musical notes whose dynamics are governed by the composer’s shaping of the words and by the intricate orchestration that goes alongside them. Similarly the production style in purely theatrical terms is largely laid down by the conventions to which the original work conforms. If Verdi writes music demanding a large body of choral singers, as he does in this opera’s first act, you’ve got to have room for a lot of people on stage. To this extent an opera belongs more firmly to its own time than a play; it’s far less easy (though not, as the recent English National Opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a boys’ school demonstrates, impossible) to have a radical reinterpretation of an opera than of a play. Two years after its premiere in Italy, in 1887, Otello received its first London production at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, around the corner from the Royal Opera House, and as I saw this production I could have almost imagined myself transported back to the Lyceum of Irving’s time. Timothy O’Brien’s set, defined by dark green Corinthian pillars, is based on Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. The singers wear Renaissance costumes.

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Pervasive religious symbolism, which counterpoints Iago’s declarations of atheism and reinforces Desdemona’s devout Christianity, includes two massive painted backdrops, one of a crucifixion and the other of Venetian painter Tintoretto’s ‘Deposition from the Cross’, along with a succession of crucifixes. In the thrilling opening scene, with its choral and orchestral depiction of a tempest which anticipates the internal one that will destroy Otello, the presence of a great cannon facing directly into the auditorium along with the milling of a crowd of citizens is as naturalistic as anything produced by Irving or Beerbohm Tree.

Verdi’s music demands large-scale acting, too, but allows also for lyricism and subtlety. Otello makes what is surely the most thrilling first entry in all opera with his cry of ‘Esultate!’ delivered here by the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko with burnished tone that immediately established his heroic credentials. But later the role modulates into the tenderness of the love music and this too was finely sung. The Desdemona I saw, Marina Poplavskaya, had intended to be in the audience but took over from the announced singer. She did full justice to the role, phrasing not only beautifully but dramatically. In the Willow Song, for instance, she sang ‘Salce, salce!’ – ‘willow, willow!’ – as if it came from the lips of the maid Barbara, not from a diva performing a set piece. The handsome Iago, Lucio Gallo, singing in his native language, acted with disingenuous subtlety, addressing his creed directly to the audience. Blessed with the Royal Opera’s superb chorus and orchestra, Antonio Pappano conducted with commanding skill. Verdi’s Otello is a rare instance of one masterpiece engendered by another, and this production did full justice to it.


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Author: Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He is an Associate Reviewer of ReviewingShakespeare. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells