The National Symphony Orchestra, led by its Music Director Gianandrea Noseda, presents Musical Roots: Opera in Concert, two concert performances of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, Otello, at Kennedy Center, June 7 and 8, 2024.  In anticipation of this event, WETA Classical provides this guide to the opera – an historical context and a synopsis of each Act – to further our appreciation of this masterpiece.    

Details about these NSO concert performances, including cast members, can be found here. 

During his long composing career, Giuseppe Verdi often looked to literature by Italian, Spanish French and German writers for the bases of his operas.  He particularly admired the works of William Shakespeare, whom Verdi called "the great searcher of the human heart."  In addition to Otello, Verdi completed two other operatic masterpieces based on Shakespeare plays:  Macbeth and Falstaff. This trio of his works is considered to be among the greatest operatic treatments of Shakespeare.  Verdi also considered other of the Bard's plays as source material, including The Tempest, Hamlet, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet. 

Otello  was Verdi's penultimate opera, and one of his most profound in terms of depth, weight and significance.  When he began working on Otello, Verdi was the king of Italian opera – respected, adored by the public and financially successful.  Even before Otello's premiere in ​1887,the press and public were clamoring for this new work, especially because more than a decade has passed since his previous opera, the spectacular Aida.  In fact, Verdi had retreated to retirement after the success of Aida, with no intention to compose further.  He referred to himself as an "opera farmer", choosing a simple country life; he built his home, Villa Sant-Agata, in the countryside of Northern Italy, where he farmed, bred horses, and cultivated grapes in a vineyard. 

What brought him out of a decade of retirement to write Otello?  His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who believed that Verdi's retirement deprived the world of his unspent talents, and that further financial rewards await.  Ricordi knew that Verdi placed great emphasis on the strength of an underlying story as the basis for an opera.  Shakespeare plays, full of drama and strong characters, were perfect vehicles.  After an extended period of coaxing and refusals, Ricordi finally succeeded in piquing Verdi’s interest in Shakespeare's Othello, the tragedy of a respected and triumphant Moor general, whose unfounded jealousy encouraged by one of the major villains in literature, Iago, cascades into tragedy for Otello and his adoring wife, Desdemona. (Gioachino Rossini had earlier composed his own Otello, and in deference to Rossini, Verdi originally suggested that his own version be called Iago). 

Boito and Verdi
Boito and Verdi at Sant'Agata

Verdi collaborated with the poet, critic and composer, Arrigo Boito (who wrote the opera, Mefistofele) for the libretto of Otello.  The two would later collaborate on Verdi's final opera, Falstaff.  The painstaking process of composing Otello, including stops and starts with the music and libretto, took more than eight years, starting in 1879 and ending with its successful premiere at La Scala in 1887.  When completed, Verdi famously wrote to Boito, "It is finished! All honour to us! (and to Him!)." 

In the ensuring years since its premiere, Verdi's Otello unwaveringly stands as one of the greatest operatic achievements in the history of the genre.  The composer is known for writing music that impeccably supports and amplifies a plot.  And in Otello, Verdi's emotional music – powerful as the villainy of Iago unfolds, turbulent as rage envelopes Otello at rumors of Desdemona's betrayal, and tender in the moments of love between Otello and Desdemona – perfectly underpins the deep psychological heart and tragic nature of the story.   

Synopsis of Otello 

Act I 

The opera opens at a port on the island of Cyprus, at the end of the 15th century.  Otello, a strong and respected Moor and Venetian general, returns home to Cyprus by ship after a triumphant battle against the Turks.  A crowd greets him with a victory celebration.  Roderigo, a Venetian citizen, is disappointed that Otello has survived because he is love with Otello's wife, Desdemona.  Iago, the villain in this tragic tale, is resentful that Otello promoted Cassio, rather than him, to lieutenant.  So Iago he offers to help Roderigo win over Desdemona.  Toward his scheme, Iago plies Cassio with drink and suggests that Roderigo fight Cassio. The former governor, Montano, is dismayed to find Cassio drunk.  Iago states that Cassio drinks every night.  An inebriated Cassio attacks Roderigo and Montano.  Otello arrives to settle the dispute and Desdemona arrives, awaken from the disturbance. Otello demotes Cassio for his behavior.  Alone after months of separation, Otello and Desdemona express their love for each other in the tender duet, "Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor” / "Now in the dark night all noise is silenced." 

Act II 

In the castle, Iago advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to intercede on Cassio’s behalf to have him reinstated as lieutenant.  Secretly, Iago expresses his malevolent view of the life and humanity in the aria, “Credo in un Dio crudel / "I believe in a cruel God."  Iago coyly suggests to Otello that Desdemona is unfaithful and having an affair with Cassio, but duplicitously advises Otello to refrain from jealousy and remain vigilant.  Desdemona asks Otello to reinstate Cassio, which further inflames Otello's suspicious about her affections for Cassio.  He dismisses her, saying he has a headache. Desdemona offers to provide comfort by wrapping his head in a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries.  Iago grabs the handkerchief.  Otello's suspicious grow and he demands that Iago give him more evidence of Desdemona's infidelity.  Iago states that he saw Cassio with Desdemona’s strawberry-embroidered handkerchief, and that he once heard Cassio say, while dreaming, that he and Desdemona had to conceal their love.  Enraged, Otello seeks vengeance against Desdemona and Cassio. 

Act III 

Otello awaits ambassadors from Venice.  Desdemona arrives and again pleads with Otello to reinstate Cassio.  Otello, claiming illness, asks Desdemona for her strawberry-embroidered handkerchief. He tells her that the strawberry handkerchief contains a magic spell, and using any other one may lead to tragedy. As Desdemona grows fearful, Otello demands that she swear fidelity to him.  She pleads with Otello, claiming her love and fidelity, but he mistrusts her and orders her to leave.  He curses his situation, “Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali” / “God, you could have thrown every evil at me!”  Otello hides as Iago and Cassio enter the room, and listens as Iago lures Cassio to talk about his adventures with “that woman”.  Cassio describes a woman, but it’s unclear whether he is referring to Desdemona. Cassio produces a handkerchief that a woman – possibly a secret admirer -- left at his house.  Iago waves the handkerchief discreetly to catch Otello’s attention as proof that Cassio and Desdemona have had a tryst. Later, Otello asks Iago to retrieve poison to kill Desdemona but Iago suggests that it would be more fitting to strangle her in the bed that she supposedly shared with Cassio. In gratitude, Otello promotes Iago to lieutenant.  Lodovico, one of the visiting ambassadors arrives and asks for Cassio, but is told that Cassio is no longer in Otello’s good graces.  Desdemona arrives, again stating her hopes that Cassio will be reinstated.  Enraged, Otello attempts to strike her but is restrained.  She weeps at Otello’s behavior toward her.  Otello then reads aloud a letter from the Doge of Venice stating that he is being sent to Venice and that Cassio will succeed him as governor of Cyprus.  Iago is infuriated, while the others in Otello’s room take pity on Desdemona.  Iago’s vengeance takes hold:  he advises Otello to seek revenge on Desdemona as soon as possible and orders Roderigo to murder Cassio. Desdemona appeals to Otello for mercy, but he curses her and becomes more agitated, crying “Il fazzoletto!” / “The handkerchief”!  In his frenzied state, Otello falls to the ground as the crowd outside hails Otello as “The Lion of Venice” while Iago mocks him, “Ecco il Leone!” / “Behold the Lion!” 

Act IV 

At night in Desdemona’s bedchamber, Emilia assists Desdemona for bed.  Still fearful and grieving at Otello’s anger, Desdemona asks Emilia to lay out Desdemona’s wedding gown so that she may be buried in it if she dies.  Desdemona recalls the Willow Song that her mother’s servant sang when abandoned by her lover, “Piangea cantando nell'erma landa” / "Singing, she wept on the lonely hearth."  Fearful at what may ensue, Desdemona touchingly prays, Ave Maria, then falls asleep.  Otello enters with the intention of killing her.  He kisses her three times.  She awakens, and Otello asks if she said her prayers because he doesn’t want to condemn her soul when she dies tonight. He accuses her of infidelity with Cassio. Frightened, she denies any infidelity and begs Otello to invite Cassio to verify her denials; she pleads with him to spare her.  In his frenzy, he suffocates her. Emilia arrives with the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo.  Near death, Desdemona calls out to Emilia, saying that she is falsely accused, although does not name Otello.  She bids farewell and dies.  Emilia accuses Otello of murder. Otello confesses but claims he was justified.  He threatens Emilia and she calls for help.  Iago, Cassio and Lodovico arrive.  Otello tells them that Cassio’s possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief is proof of their affair. But now the truth is revealed: a horrified Emilia tells them that Iago stole the handkerchief from her; Cassio states that he randomly found the handkerchief in his home; and Montano explains that Roderigo, in his final breaths, disclosed Iago’s evil plot. Otello demands an explanation from Iago, but Iago quickly departs.  In grief over his tragic actions, Otello draws his sword but is stopped.  He then pulls a secret dagger from his robe and stabs himself.  He lays next to his dead wife on the bed, cries out for her, kisses her, and dies. 

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