Metropolitan Opera Live in HD Broadcast: Otello
Transmission of Saturday, October 27, 2012, 12:55 P.M.
Johan Botha and Renée Fleming as Otello and Desdemona in Act IV of Otello at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2012
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Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito, after the play by William Shakespeare
THE CAST (in order of vocal appearance)
Montano baritone, STEPHEN GAERTNER
Cassio tenor, MICHAEL FABIANO
Iago baritone, FALK STRUCKMANN
Roderigo tenor, EDUARDO VALDES
Otello tenor, JOHAN BOTHA
Desdemona soprano, RENÉE FLEMING
Emilia mezzo, RENÉE TATUM
Herald baritone, LUTHANDO QAVE
Lodovico bass, JAMES MORRIS
Conducted by SEMYON BYCHKOV
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Production: Elijah Moshinsky
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Peter J. Hall
Lighting designer: Duane Schuler
Choreography: Eleanor Fazan
Stage director: David Kneuss
Chorus master: Donald Palumbo
|Musical preparation: Joan Dornemann,
Dennis Giauque, Paul Nadler,
Assistant stage directors: Eric Einhorn,
J. Knighten Smit
Stage band conductor: Gregory Buchalter
Children’s chorus director: Anthony Piccolo
Prompter: Joan Dornemann
Italian coach: Hemdi Kfir
Fight director: B. H. Barry
Production a gift of Mrs. Donald D. Harrington
Revival a gift of Rolex
Directed for Live Cinema by
Barbara Willis Sweete
HD host: Sondra Radvanovsky
This performance of L’Elisir d’Amore will be
transmitted live, in high definition and
surround sound, into selected movie
theaters and will be shared with students
in more than 100 U.S. schools as part of
The Met HD Live in Schools program.
For information, visit
The feverishly anticipated world premiere of Otello, at La Scala in 1887, marked the first performance of a completely new opera by Giuseppe Verdi since Aida, in 1871. After Aida, Verdi (1813–1901), then the most successful composer in the opera world, began a self-imposed retirement that was much opposed by his friends and colleagues — chief among them his publisher, Giulio Ricordi. At the suggestion of Ricordi, Verdi began a collaboration with the Padua-born composer and librettist Arrigo Boito (1842–1918) on a revision of Verdi’s 1857 opera, Simon Boccanegra — a project that had its triumphant first performance at La Scala in 1881. Boccanegra served as prelude to Verdi’s two final masterpieces, both adapted by Boito from Shakespeare plays — Otello and Falstaff (1893). At the Otello first night, Verdi — then seventy-four — received twenty curtain calls.
Otello’s long, distinguished history at the Metropolitan Opera began with a November 1891 tour performance, in Chicago, with Jean de Reszke as Otello. In 1894, the Met presented a new Otello production with Francesco Tamagno and Victor Maurel, creators of the roles of Otello and Iago, cast opposite the Desdemona of American soprano Emma Eames.
As of the beginning of the present season, the Met has presented Otello 314 times — a tally that would surely be higher were not the opera’s three principal roles so demanding. The Met’s current Otello staging, by Elijah Moshinsky, had its premiere in 1994.
ACT I. As a tempest rages in the harbor of Cyprus, citizens await the arrival of their governor, Otello. Sighting his ship, the Cypriots call on heaven to spare it. Safely in port, Otello proclaims victory over the Turks, then enters his castle. His ensign, Iago, angered by the promotion of his rival, Cassio, fans the secret desires of Roderigo, a Venetian dandy, for Otello’s wife, Desdemona. When the Cypriots gather around a celebratory bonfire, Iago leads a drinking song, enticing the easily intoxicated Cassio to drink a toast to Otello and his bride. The ensign then encourages Roderigo to provoke a duel with the reeling Cassio. When Otello’s predecessor, Montano, tries to intervene, he is wounded by Cassio. Otello, awakened by the brawl, demands an explanation, but Iago pretends ignorance of the cause of the quarrel. Desdemona appears on the scene, and Otello, seeing that his beloved has been disturbed by the fray, demotes Cassio, instructing Iago to restore order. Otello and Desdemona, left alone, tenderly recall their courtship.
ACT II. By the castle garden, Iago advises Cassio to seek Desdemona’s aid in regaining Otello’s favor. When the grateful Cassio goes off, Iago professes his belief in a cruel god, in whose image man was created. On Otello’s arrival, the ensign calls attention to Cassio, taking his leave of Desdemona and Emilia, Iago’s wife, in the garden. Iago makes subtle innuendos about Desdemona’s fidelity, then warns Otello to beware of jealousy. Women, children and sailors bring flowers to Desdemona, whose beauty softens Otello’s newly aroused suspicions, but when she begins to plead for Cassio’s reinstatement, he grows irritable. She tries to bind his brow with a handkerchief, but he throws it to the ground. As the uncomprehending Desdemona declares her devotion, Iago furtively wrests the handkerchief from Emilia, who has retrieved it. When the women leave, Otello accuses his ensign of destroying his peace of mind. When the Moor demands proof of Desdemona’s infidelity, Iago claims he has heard Cassio murmur Desdemona’s name in his sleep; worse, he says he has seen in Cassio’s hand the embroidered handkerchief Otello gave her when he first courted her. Seconded by Iago, Otello vows vengeance.
ACT III. In the armory, Iago promises Otello more proof, then departs as Desdemona greets her husband. The Moor hints at his suspicions, but she fails to understand. When he demands the handkerchief, she again pleads for Cassio. Otello, sure of her guilt, calls her a courtesan. She tearfully declares her innocence, but the Moor sends her away. His rage spent, he reflects brokenly that he could have endured any affliction but this, then hides as Cassio and Iago approach. The latter, flashing the handkerchief, manipulates Cassio’s banter about his mistress so that Otello thinks he means Desdemona. Cassio leaves as trumpets announce dignitaries from Venice. Otello resolves to kill his wife.
In the great hall, the court enters to welcome Lodovico, the ambassador, who brings orders recalling Otello to Venice and naming Cassio governor. Losing his self-control, Otello hurls Desdemona to the floor. As the stunned courtiers try to console her, Otello orders them out. The Moor falls in a fit, and Iago ironically salutes him as the Lion of Venice.
ACT IV. In Desdemona’s room, Emilia helps her mistress prepare for bed. Desdemona, filled with foreboding, sings a song about a maid forsaken by her lover. She bids Emilia goodnight, says her prayers and retires. Otello steals in and tenderly kisses her. When she awakens, he tells her to prepare for death; though she protests her innocence, he smothers her. Emilia returns with the news that Cassio has slain Roderigo. Hearing Desdemona’s death moan, she cries for help, bringing Iago, Lodovico and Cassio. When Emilia exposes Iago’s treachery, he rushes from the room. Otello, realizing he has been deceived, stabs himself and dies upon a kiss.
Otello had its premiere sixteen years after Verdi’s previous opera, Aida. It took a conspiracy of Verdi’s friends — Countess Maffei, publisher Giulio Ricordi and conductor Franco Faccio — to persuade him to reconsider his apparent retirement from composition. Their chief inducement was the talent of Arrigo Boito, librettist of La Gioconda and composer of Mefistofele. Here was the poet worthy of adapting Shakespeare, whom Verdi considered “the greatest authority on the heart of man.” Work progressed slowly, however. To Boito, Verdi wrote that “farm affairs, mineral baths, hot weather and — let’s face it — my inconceivable laziness have stood in the way.”
Talk of “modernism” was rampant in the music world. About the influence of Wagner, who died in 1883, Verdi wrote, “The Germans have every right to produce German music, [but] we, by imitating them, simply go back on our own heritage and make a hybrid affair, without any Italian character.” The composer intensified his customary secretiveness, excluding visitors from the final dress rehearsal and reserving the right to withdraw the score even at that late stage.
For the premiere, at La Scala, on February 5, 1887, Verdi had chosen and drilled his cast carefully — Francesco Tamagno in the title role, Victor Maurel as Iago, Romilda Pantaleone as Desdemona, with Faccio on the podium. The public and critics, though perplexed by the score’s novelty, reacted with enthusiasm. The U.S. premiere was at New York’s Academy of Music, on April 16, 1888. The Met’s first Otello, on November 23, 1891, was Jean de Reszke. The current Met production was unveiled on March 21, 1994.
WHAT TO READ AND HEAR
The most complete biography of Verdi remains that by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz (Oxford). The Cambridge Opera Handbook Giuseppe Verdi: Otello is an excellent one-volume reference. The third volume of Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi (Oxford; hard to find) contains valuable insights on Otello.
Toscanini’s 1947 broadcast performance, with Ramon Vinay as the Moor, is still the most concentrated, fiery account of the score on disc (RCA). James Levine’s RCA recording with Plácido Domingo, Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes heading the cast remains a persuasive, beautifully detailed reading. Herbert von Karajan’s first recording (Decca) is illuminated by the uncommonly vivid Otello and Desdemona of Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi. On DVD, the Met’s current production is available with Levine pacing Domingo, Renée Fleming and James Morris (DG). Barbara Frittoli and Domingo head the cast of La Scala’s 2001 Otello, led by Riccardo Muti (Teldec).
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1986 theatrical film of Otello, filmed on location in Italy and Crete, features Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli and Justino Díaz performing to a prerecorded soundtrack conducted by Lorin Maazel (MGM Home Entertainment). Elijah Moshinsky’s glossy Covent Garden production was broadcast live on European television in 1992, with Georg Solti conducting Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Sergei Leiferkus (Kultur). For those interested in a DVD featuring Shakespeare’s original text sans Verdi, Orson Welles’s compulsively watchable 1952 film, a noble failure in a career chock-full of them, is available from Image Entertainment.
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