Otello and Othello

[The great Italian poet and composer Arrigo Boïto was the librettist for Verdi's Otello. This libretto is considered one of the great achievements in literature, as Boïto had to take an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature by Shakespeare, condense it, 'musicalize' it and make it work as well for the stage as the original. Most critics agree that he was successful. The following article briefly compares the two works, the English tragedy and the Italian opera. - NMR]

Otello is the only opera to challenge a Shakespearean tragedy and emerge undimmed by the comparison. — Winton Dean

An Opera is not a play; our art lives by elements unknown to spoken tragedy. An atmosphere that has been destroyed can be created all over again. Eight bars are enough to restore a sentiment to life; a rhythm can re-establish a character; music is the most omnipotent of all the arts; it has a logic all its own — both freer and more rapid that the logic of spoken thought, and much more eloquent. — Boïto in a letter to Verdi

Most operatic adaptations of Shakespeare have been failures. Of about eighty attempts, only a handful have been successes; three of these are by Verdi, and the greatest of all is Otello.

Shakespeare's Othello, one of the masterpieces of dramatic literature had nearly 3,500 lines. Verdi's Otello, one of the masterpieces of operatic literature has fewer the 800. How could Boïto have taken a great masterpiece, eviscerated it, and produced another great masterpiece? The answer of course, as he says above is the music. Boïto reduced the play to its essentials, knowing that Verdi's music would fill the gaps.

At first glance, the cuts seem drastic; for example, the entire first act is gone. Yet a careful comparison of the two texts shows that almost everything in the play appears, or is referenced, in the opera. The gist of Shakespeare's opening conversation between Iago and Roderigo appears during Act I of the opera. Othello's description to the Senate of how Desdemona fell in love with him are part of their love duet.

With a few exception, all of the play's story elements appear in the opera. There are minor differences. In the play Iago kills Roderigo and wounds Cassio; in the opera Cassio kills Roderigo. Iago tries to escape at the end of the play but is captured and, in a reference to Cinthio's version is ordered to be tortured. Verdi's Iago runs off; we do not know what happens to him. Othello's fainting fit is moved to a different time inf the action.

And there are additions which have no parallel in the play. Othello starts with a long conversation between two men, necessary to set the scene, but not very dramatic. When Othello arrives on Cyprus in Act II, he lovingly greets Desdemona and they enter the castle together. Otello opens with some of the best storm music ever written and Otello bursts on the scene with his mighty Esultate, which immediately establishes him as a warrior and hero. Act I ends with the exquisite duet between Desdemona and Otello which includes materials from other sections in Shakespeare, but has no parallel in its emotional content.

Then there is Iago's Satanic Credo (I believe in a cruel God), the contents of which are only hinted at in the play. There is the dramatic 'vengeance' duet between Iago and Otello which parallels almost word for word the end of Shakespeare's Act III Scene 3 . With the addition of the music and the two singing together it is positively spine-tingling. Many more examples could be cited to justify the claim that Othello lost nothing in the hands of Boïto and Verdi.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) prophetically wrote of Shakespeare's Othello: "Had the scene opened in Cypress (sic) and the preceding incidents been occasionally related, there had been little wanting to a drama of the most exact and scrupulous regularity". Otello proves him right.