Verdi’s Otello

 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.

Works Cited

Sadie, Stanley, ed. and Robert Parker. Verdi and his operas.New York:St. Martin’s Press,

 Incorporated, 2001

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

A Survey of Opera Literature

A Survey of Opera Literature

by D. T. Lentz

I. Operatic Economics: Courtly entertainment at a lower price

This is how an ad would have read in Venice around the late 17th century. In order for us to understand this slogan and how it came about, we must look at opera’s origins. Opera started out as high court entertainment. The intermedi of 1589 were funded by the royalty, and therefore, the government. To get an idea of how lavish these productions were in the 1600s, we know that the scenery was made only from “top-of-the line” material. Workers such as carpenters, painters, and singers were guaranteed job security for these elaborate court productions. As long as the court spectacle was produced and performed, the court didn’t care whether or not they actually enjoyed it. Opera served the purpose of entertaining the elite few, and for political reasons, was competitive with other courts to see who had the most expensive scenic designs.

The audience’s role around the beginning of the 17th century was not fully defined until the 1630s in Venice, when opera became public. The only audience for these court spectacles was courtiers, whose job was to attend court functions and elaborate ceremonies. So, I think I can safely say that any entertainment value to be absorbed from the earliest operas was secondary until Venice. In fact, any repetition of the first operas was merely to catch up any upperclass citizens who missed the first performance. It was a kind gesture on the part of the monarch to give the performance a second time on the behalf of his obedient subjects. Another reason for a second performance of a court spectacle was lack of space during the premiere.

II. Music serves the Poetry!

It seems that one name was on the lips of all the intelligent, well-read minds of the early eighteenth century, Metastasio. Of all the librettists in history, he is certainly one of the most respected, sought after poets to be set to music.

As audiences of the late Baroque opera are pleasured by the “spectacle” of the production, a new type of opera emerges, the “aria opera”(Grout, 203). Three schools of opera had also been growing and changing for years: the German, which would imitate and conform to the Italian. The English was fading away with its leader, Purcell, and the French would also progress towards Italianate styles of opera. The “aria opera” consisted of periods of musical reflection, a series, which was outlined by recitatives to form the plot. Recitative served the drama, and the aria was a moment of dramatic rest, according to Grout, but the music of the aria, was much more tense than the recit. I tend to disagree with Grout in that “the central position of the aria as a musical unit” serves only this purpose. I think there was much opportunity at this time to expand the drama from the recit into the aria. In a modern sense, singers are coached to “go somewhere” with the aria. What does it do in the grand scheme of things? Galuppi, translated by Burney gives the definition of good music as “beauty, clearness, and a good modulation.” (Grout, 205) One could correlate this idea of clarity of text to later composers of the German romantic movement of Wagner and Wolf. It seems we have come full circle.

Other facets of eighteeth century opera would evolve, like the french overture, which would become faster, include a slow section and be called Italian, leading the way for the classical symphony. In Naples, the Italian school of composition such as ornamentation, simplicity, and a light texture, would eventually be called Neapolitan. In this group of composers were Leo, Vinci, Steffani, Keiser, and Handel. Music serving the text was a product of many years of tasteful and well thought out librettos. Some of the first librettists to lead the movement of reform were Gravina, Cicognini, Stampiglia, and Metastasio, the big kahuna. His librettos would be set by almost every major Italian opera composer, such as Handel, Pergolesi, Hasse, Gluck, Conti, Caldara, and Bononcini. Why was he such a big deal and compared to Homer and Dante? I think it was because he standardized the prevailing scene-recit form of the eighteenth century, and more importantly, sought to eradicate all unnatural, superfluous elements of the seventeenth century which made it such a spectacle.

“His achievement consisted in the creation of a consistent dramatic structure conforming to the rationalistic ideals of the period, but incorporating lyrical elements suited for musical setting in a such a way as to form an organic whole.” (Grout, 207)

I am of the strong opinon that the Enlightenment during the eighteeth century was the vehicle of change for the text-driven opera. Weiss adds that Metastasio was not only admired as a librettist, but as a literary genius. We begin to see the librettist take great care in attention to the musical setting of their words. In Hoole’s translation, Metastasio talks about the right instrumentation for the right words, and if it isn’t a certain way, it will not be affective. During the enlightenment, the librettist is fast becoming a central figure, occupying the same stature of the composer.

Not that singers were no longer regarded as divas, especially the castrati, but the Italian opera of the early eighteenth century in its truest form centered around the powers of the voices that sung the words and music of the composers and librettists. This perhaps grows out of our last class discussion of the birth of the prima donna. Even though the castrati held their sway in the opera world, only until composers like Hasse did the female singer gain equal share of the diva stature, especially Faustina Bordoni, and Francesca Cuzzoni. The castrati in the eighteenth century were”comparable to Liszt or Paganini in the nineteenth” (Burney).

The interesting form of the Pasticcio or “patchwork” to the modern reader, was just another example of how opera needed a reform. It’s very rigid structure of loosely put-together arias by many composers into one opera was a “greatest hits” of its day.

In my opinion, the aria had room to grow into a dramatic outlet, just as the recitative did. Was recitative purely a musical element of the drama and nothing else? Why was the tragic ending in Metastasio’s Attilo regolo (1740) an innovation? Could lyricism really have a place in the midst of all that anguish and violence?

III. The Philosophy of Bizet and the Sweat of Wagner

Even one of the biggest promoters and supporters of Wagner was also one of his biggest critics. Nietzsche was certainly approaching Wagner’s music from a philosophical standpoint in that music should improve the listener. In this way, he found Wagner’s music flawed. He wanted an intelligent mastermind composer working on the ears of the listener, who did it in a steady and sly manner, like Georges Bizet.

Bizet’s Carmen was a masterpiece to Nietzsche for its “light, graceful, stylish” music that did not “sweat.” (Weiss, 225) The philosopher is talking about the definition of aesthetics, and what it means to different people. What do people prefer? What is disagreeable? One of the flaws Nietzsche points out is Wagner’s over-use of leitmotifs that hits the listener over the head, in contrast to Bizet’s assumption that the listener is intelligent.

The question posed by Nietzsche: “Has anyone ever observed that music emancipates the spirit…the more one becomes a musician the more one is also a philosopher?” really means that music to me is an embodiment of the soul and/or spirit, and that music should for all purposes, improve the life of an individual in some way. It stirs the mind, and makes us question ourselves and others even more, making all of us, especially musicians, into philosophers.

The concept of love as a complex emotion and puzzle that is usually misinterpreted by composers is realized by Nietzsche in Carmen. “I know no case in which the tragic irony that constitutes the kernel of love is expressed with such severity…” (Weiss, 227) He is saying that the composer Bizet really understood love and understood that there is noONE interpretation. Love is an emotion that can rear its ugly head when not returned. Love is a mutual agreement that is not a selfless thing, but a SELFISH thing. One who loves someone else wishes to receive those same powerful sentiments from the other person. “Love is, of all sentiments, the most egotistical and consequently, when hurt, the least generous.” (Weiss, 227) I’m not saying that all forms of love are like this, I’m just agreeing with Nietzsche that an emotion as complex as this, should not be treated in the standard formula of the past.

In Wagner, someone always wants to be saved. This is a highlight of Nietzsche’s support for the composer. He understood that Wagner was deeply concerned with salvation and all its forms. It is a theme that reoccurs in all his operas. He does pose the question of whether or not Wagner should have dissected this theme so thoroughly. Did the composer get too much into his own head?

The harsh criticisms of Wagner’s music by Nietzsche was very surprising to me, given his history with the composer. Although I would agree with the fact that Wagner’s idea of aesthetics did not conform with the audience’s ideas at the time and his comparison of the rise of the Third Reich giving rise to Wagner’s music was example enough of how harsh he could be. Do you think Nietzsche’s criticisms of Wagner are too harsh? Does Wagner’s music have its own place in our world of thought-provoking music, even though many our attention spans would not be able to survive it nowadays?

IV. A New Kind of Opera for the Twentieth Century

Wagner, in a backwards way, influenced Debussy in his music, especially in Pelléas et Mélisande. I think we can also all agree that the goals of these two composers were the same, just approached in a different way, using different tools. In Debussy’s most influential opera of the 20th century, we are directed towards the tendency to avoid Wagnerian techniques, which inadvertently shows Wagner’s influence by Debussy resisting it. While Debussy was resisting Wagner, he was also creating a new type of music that parallelled impressionism in painters.

We see the “idea-leitmotifs” of Pelléas influenced by the mature Wagner in Tristan. Of Wagner’s operatic output, the previously mentioned is the work that stands out to Debussy. From the Smith we learn that the impressionistic composer saw in Tristan the perfect model of leitmotif and harmony that doesn’t detract from the action. Debussy felt that leitmotifs should be used sparingly and that the characters “should not be subjected to the slavery of the leitmotif.” ( 81)

In their music dramas, Wagner and Debussy both sought to paint a vivid landscape with orchestral colors and both achieved this; one used more blatant and powerful forces, and the other used restrained and simple methods. One obvious difference is that Debussy futher explores his harmonic juxtapositions, whereas Wagner makes only appearances and continues in a new direction.

Debussy’s independent method of composition was aimed at indirect symbolism and hidden meanings. “In Pelléas, as in all works meriting the title ‘Symbolist,’ there is a sense in which the words used create a higher level of meaning above the literal, in which to define is to destroy.” (78) Wagner also influenced symbolist thought, as we learn in his Lettre sur la musique quoted by Baudelaire. Baudelaire was considered the father of symbolist thought. (78) The poet and critic quoted Wagner in his Lettre à Berlioz saying that when poetry reaches its limits, the other will then exert itself. Debussy’s opera was a product of its time and in reaction to Wagner, but at the same time a new type of music that would influence composers in the later half of the 20th century. Do we also find the character-motifs used by Wagner and Debussy used in Verdi’s and Puccini’s music? Do we see the ‘stock- villain’ motifs in the characters of Scarpia and Iago? Were Puccini and Verdi influencing Wagner and Debussy?

V. Glass’s Operas: At first a hard pill to swallow

The general consensus of Glass and his music seems to be that most listeners either boo a performance or give five standing ovations. To me, when someone becomes truly innovative, they are usually disregarded by society as unorthodox. In Philip Glass’s operas Einstein and Satyagraha, his innovation is at first a challenge to our conception of music, time, and theater.

Ashby mentions Glass growing up in the New York “progressive theatre” of playwrights such as Brecht, Genet, Pinter, and Beckett, as opposed to “traditional theatre” such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Glass was accustomed to non-conventional forms of art from the very beginning. The kinds of plays that Glass saw would change our ideas of society and sense of time. Some of these plays lasted five hours long with the first half hour in total silence.

Ashby defines minimalism as an “offshoot of avant-garde theatre.” (244) This music is rooted in the New York revolutionary theatre of the 1950s. So, we can see a change in direction of opera’s priorities. We move from Berg’s dramatic portrayal of the orchestra in Wozzeck and Lulu to music which is totally composed for non-traditional theatre, theatre that is “progressive.”

In order for theatre to look forward, it needs to change time, and transform the listener. In the Weiss, the flutist Ransom Wilson comments on Glass’s music: ” As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored, …The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle…I thought of leaving, Then with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it.” (Weiss, 324) What I think Wilson is saying is that the repetitive music forces us to digest it in a very slow way, not rush to conclusions, and become very meditative in our discoveries and realizations. Glass makes us “feel” the music in a physical sense, as if we are changing with it in its meticulous and slight alterations of repetition.

Glass really introduced a form of music for the theatre which was no longer abstract or narrative. The audience would no longer feel detached from the sounds, he or she would either willingly accept and be swept up with it, or resist it. The latter would be slightly pained with classically trained ears. Should we be judgemental of this music? How much of it is ridiculous? How do we decipher through the repetitions what is truly inspiring and what is unnecessary? The music of Glass causes a tension that never really lets us relax. Do we see this as exciting theatre or a nuisance?