Opera Australia Blog

Getting to know the music of Otello

Claudio Sgura as Iago and Simon O'Neill as Otello. Photo by Branco Gaica.

Claudio Sgura as Iago and Simon O’Neill as Otello. Photo by Branco Gaica.

A stormy night

The opera opens with a raging thunderstorm, conveyed in a whirlwind of dissonance and dynamics from the orchestra. The organ holds a dissonant chord, the woodwinds leap up and down the scale and the brass and percussion rumble thunder and lightning.

It’s a spectacular opening, accompanied by a loud chorus as a mass of voices will Othello’s battleship to safety in the ferocious seas.

‘Una vela! Una Vela!’

All is smoke! All is fire!
The dense and dreadful fog
bursts into flame, and then subsides
in greater gloom. Convulsed
the cosmos, glacial surges
the spectre-like north-wind,
and titanic trumpet-calls
sound fanfares in the sky!
God, the splendour of the tempest!
God, the sandbank’s luring smile!
Save the treasure and the standard
of the Venetian enterprise!
Thou, who guidest stars and fortunes,
Thou, who rulest earth and sky,
grant that in a tranquil ocean
may the trusty anchor lie.

The love duet

Before the plot turns too sinister, we are treated to a stunning love duet as Othello and Desdemona sing of their passion.

Watch Placido Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa sing the duet:

‘Già nella notte densa’

OTHELLO

Let death come now, that in the ecstasy
of this embrace I meet my hour of hours!
Such is the rapture of my soul, I fear
that never more to me may be vouchsafed
to know such bliss in the hidden future of my fate

DESDEMONA

 May heaven dispel all cares
and love change not throughout the changing years

An evil creed

As Act II opens, the jealous Iago is manipulating Otello and Cassio behind the scenes. He’s already orchestrated Cassio’s disgrace, now, he wishes Othello to believe that Cassio and Desdemona are entwined in a passionate affair.

Why is Iago so evil, so cruel, so bitter? In a remarkable aria, he tells us why, revealing his life’s creed.

In this clip, Bryn Terfel sings the bleak aria:

‘Credo in un Dio crudel’

I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image
and who in fury I name.
From the very vileness of a germ
or an atom, vile was I born.
I am a wretch because I am a man,
and I feel within me the primeval slime.
Yes! This is my creed!
I believe with a heart as steadfast
as that of the widow in church,
that the evil I think
and that which I perform
I think and do by destiny’s decree.
I believe the just man to be a mocking actor
in face and heart;
that all his being is a lie,
tear, kiss, glance,
sacrifice and honour.
And I believe man the sport of evil fate
from the germ of the cradle
to the worm of the grave.
After all this mockery then comes Death.
And then?… And then?
Death is nothingness,
heaven an old wives’ tale.

A festering fear

Othello grows tormented by the thought of Desdemona’s infidelity, helped along by Iago’s staged encounters and planted evidence. He swears vengeance. Listen to tenor Jonas Kaufmann sing the aria:

‘Dio mi potevi!’

God! Thou couldst have rained upon my head
every affliction of poverty and shame,
made of my heroic battle-honours
a heap of ruination and a lie …
and I should have borne the cruel cross
of torment and disgrace
with patience
and resigned me to the will of heaven.
But – oh tears, oh pain! –
to rob me of that vision
in which my soul was garnered joyfully!
That sun has been snuffed out,
that smile, that ray
which gives me life and happiness!
That sun has been snuffed out, etc.
Mercy, thou immortal
rose-lipped cherubin,
cover at the last thy holy face
with the horrid mask of hell!
Ah! Damnation!
Let her first confess her crime,
then die!
Confession! Confession!

A lament and a prayer

Othello commands his wife to her chamber and she sings of a broken-hearted servant and her lament. She sings two exquisite arias back to back: the ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’ as she prays for her soul.

Listen to Maria Callas sing the music:

‘The Willow Song’

She wept as she sang on the lonely heath,
the poor girl wept,
O Willow, Willow, Willow!
She sat with her head upon her breast,
Willow, Willow, Willow!
Come sing! Come sing!
The green willow shall be my garland.

Lianna Haroutounian as Desdemona in Opera Australia's Otello SW14

‘Ave Maria’

Hail Mary, full of grace,
blessed amongst wives and maids art thou,
and blessed is the fruit, o blessed one,
of thy maternal womb, Jesu.
Pray for those who kneeling adore thee,
pray for the sinner, for the innocent
and for the weak oppressed; and to the powerful man,
who also grieves, thy sweet compassion show.
Pray for him who bows beneath injustice
and ‘neath the blows of cruel destiny;
for us, pray thou for us,
pray for us always,
and at the hour of our death
pray for us, pray for us,
pray!

A terrible realisation

Othello arrives, in anger, and the opera ploughs on to its inevitable conclusion. But before the opera ends, Iago’s treachery is revealed and Othello realises his mistake, singing “Niun mi tema!”

In this clip, Jonas Kaufmann sings the anguished aria:

‘Niun mi tema’

Let no one fear me
though he see me armed.
Here is my journey’s end …

Oh! Glory!
Othello’s day is done.

Otello-CTA

Did you enjoy listening to Jonas Kaufmann sing Verdi? He is performing live with full orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne this August. For tickets and more information, visit the Opera Australia website.

Credits: Libretto by Avril Bardoni. English translation copyright Murashev.com. Production photos Branco Gaica.

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