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10 March, 2022

Otello, Verdi, Sydney Opera House, Sat 19th Feb 2022. Follow-up notes.

 Dear Colleagues,

 My brief notes on Otello did not do justice to the piece which is one of the greatest works written for the operatic stage.  After further thought and some reading I offer the following observations about this work which I did not enjoy on first seeing it many years ago.  Leo Schofield used to distinguish the more ‘accessible’ works from those which were more profound yet less immediately appealing to some. 

Regarding The Moor of Venice I am now a devoted convert to both play and opera.  Discussion about Iago’s devious motivations, evidence, plot, history, etcetera goes on endlessly amongst experts … yet the basic theme of love, suspicion, jealousy and revenge are the relentless focus of this piece.  Boito’s libretto was such that they fully intended the opera to be called ‘Iago’ until the last stages of their collaboration when Verdi pushed for a return to ‘Otello’. 

The supposed rivalry between Wagner and Verdi was largely a fiction.  Born in the same year 1813, each rose to the top of their respective national schools of opera.  Furthermore both aimed at the perfect musical and vocal drama in their operas.  Living longer, Verdi came out of retirement at least twice to compose and revise 4 or more operas, Otello being second last to Falstaff, Verdi’s only mature comedy. 

Leitmotifs occur throughout Wagner’s operas yet Otello contains just one to my observation.  Otello’s love theme (or ‘another kiss’ as I call it) recurs three more times after its introduction in the act I love duet.  While many of Wagner’s musical motifs may go over the head of the average audience member, few would miss Verdi’s melody which is unmistakably linked to the love between Desdemona and Otello.  A similar device is used by Donizetti in Lucia di Lammermoor, another love theme which returns briefly but unmistakably in the Mad Scene. 

Boito was one of the very few composers who also wrote libretti (his revolutionary Mefistofele was first presented at La Scala in 1868).  He joins Wagner, Berlioz and Leoncavallo but uniquely, Boito also collaborated with others in successful operas.  His reduced version of Shakespeare’s Othello became a perfect foil for the elderly but enthusiastic Verdi. 

This brings us to the origin of the story which appears to be Cinthio’s 1565 ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (or “Disdemona and the Moor”) a short story which had not been translated into English until after Shakespeare’s time.  Along with many other pieces of evidence including the naming and feminist sentiments of Emilia in Othello, this has led some recent commentators to question whether William Shakespeare was presenting plays and sonnets originating from the pen of Emilia Lanier Bassano.  This fascinating woman came from a large Jewish musical family from northern Italy, several of whose members had been in the service of the court of Henry VIII.  See Atlantic article by Elizabeth Winkler Who Was Shakespeare? Could the Author Have Been a Woman? - The Atlantic

Now that should get people a-talking! 

Notes written by a still a-learning Andrew Byrne ..