Otello: The humanity behind the crime of passion and its influence on verismo composers
In looking at the humanity of the crime of passion in the final scene of Verdi’s Otello, one can see that the character of Otello throughout the entire opera is derived primarily from personality traits to which we can all relate. First of all, in order for us to sympathize with Otello, we must understand how he came upon the tragedy, we need a character development, and this can only be done with the character’s presence on stage. Scott Balthasar, in his article on Desdemona’s alienation and Otello’s fall from the Cambridge Companion to Verdi says “the more presence a character has on stage, the more the audience emphasizes with them.” This is also true of Desdemona as he goes on to say “So by emphasizing Desdemona’s purity, naïveté, and vulnerability, Verdi and Boito adhered to an aesthetic involving the cathartic destruction of a sympathetic female lead with which their audience could readily identify.” (237) I think the tragedy of both the characters’ downfalls lies in the amount of stage time they have.
In order for the character of Otello to be truly engrossing, we must see him as a normal human being, with flawed emotions, and not as a saint. Julian Buddin says in The Operas of Verdi that tragic heroes need the right circumstances to give away their morale, otherwise they are not interesting, and the audience can not relate. (305) In talking about the flaws of Otello’s character, we can look to many famous portrayals over the years, in play and in opera, especially by Sir Lawrence Olivier and Plàcido Domingo. Domingo says in his semi-autobiographical My first forty years, “Otello, the once great commander, has so completely lost his sense of direction that he clutches at everything Iago suggests to him as if it were revealed truth.” (132) One can certainly empathize with this pathetic human trait which lies in all of us. In a Zeffirelli production at La Scala in 1976, Domingo and Piero Capuccilli’s Iago are staged in Act II doing “mundane things.” The reason for this was the less Otello looked Iago in the the eye, the more he would fall into his trap.
To see how Otello transformed into chaos, let us dissect his character at the beginning of the opera. We know from the Shakespearean drama, that the Moor of Venice is of darker skin than the rest of his colleagues. Domingo says the characterization by Zeffirelli comes from Olivier, and therefore from Shakespeare, “thinking of Otello as a black man alienated from white society.” (132) Balthasar notices in Act I, after the inn brawl, we see Otello abusing his power when he dismisses Cassio for personal reasons of waking his bride, Desdemona. Is this irrational? I think it is. Verdi and Boito go to the trouble of portraying Otello as irrational rather than Shakespeare’s rational “It is the cause” speech and reason for committing the crime from Act II in the play, which was eliminated from Otello’s role in the opera. (239)
In order to rationalize the tragedy, Verdi and Boito made Otello an anti-hero, an “emotional weakling and abusive dupe who irrationally disregards his wife’s loyalty.” (240) The darkness of Otello is even hinted at in the love duet of Act I in the words “furious heart, war thunder, world is engulfed in immense wrath.” (241) Desdemona acts as a healing presence to Otello in the opera, different from Shakespeare, where she is “intelligent, assertive, and articulate” in Iago’s homily of Act II. (240)
As for its influence on verismo operas, Otello is a true standard. Although it is sometimes romantic in style, especially in the lyricism of Desdemona and the fake-goodness of Iago, it still rings true to the ever-present qualities in all of us that push us to the point of true evil, which is human. This is present in the verismo operas of Mascagni and Leoncavallo, with the tragic downfalls of the heroes and the action leading up to them. When evil is thrust upon a good person in the right way, the result is disastrous.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. and Robert Parker. Verdi and his operas.New York:St. Martin’s Press,
Balthasar, Scott, ed. Cambridge Companion to Verdi.Cambridge:Cambridge UP, 2004
Domingo, Plàcido. Plàcido Domingo: My first forty years.New York: Alfred A. Kopf, Inc. 1983
Budden, Julian. The Operas of Verdi. 3 vols.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992