Thursday, May 10, 2012

Verdi's Otello & the Art of Seduction

At fifty-eight, after thirty-two years of unstinting productivity - in one period writing eleven operas in five years, Giuseppe Verdi was contemplating retirement. He was heaped with honors now, and when asked to compose he graciously responded and usually, respectfully, declined. He replied he had a farm to see to. Verdi was also trying to relax, spend time with his wife Guiseppina and was intent on building a charity hospital. He may have had a desire to forget the world, but the world had not forgotten him.
The seduction starts at a dinner in 1874. At their table in the Grand Hotel sat Verdi, his wife, his publisher Ricordi and another guest, Arrigio Boito - a composer, poet and librettist with whom Verdi had worked before, Ricordi voiced the opinion that perhaps they could work together again. Verdi seemed in no way interested, especially in undertaking a new work. Perhaps they could revise Simon Boccenegra, the wily publisher offered. This, Verdi replied, "might" be of interest. This was how it began - a seven year correspondence on the idea of "a Shakespeare project". Verdi was perhaps more than half aware of what was happening. In a series of wonderfully evasive letters he explained that he could not commit to such an adventure, because if he requested a libretto, then he would feel bound to try to write the music, besides he was getting too old for such things.
Boito and Ricordi then went to Guissepina and only asked that he consider looking at a scenario. She told them to leave this work with her and under no circumstances were they to approach composer directly. Finally he did look at it, but still, he would not commit explaining that it was summer and he and his wife were off to Turin "to take the waters". On his own Boito wrote an imploring letter explaining that the composer need feel no obligation from whatever work he did on Verdi's behalf, "It was his honor to do so". This resulted in the first draft of the libretto, a masterpiece of its' own. Now - the mind working, Verdi began Otello in earnest.
The problems arose and were dispatched one by one in secrecy. As rehearsals started interest in the opera became a frenzy. The composer and his partner reduced the action to essentials. Four acts in which we moved "in reverse order " from triumph and apotheosis in act one with Otello's cry of "Exsultate" to the closing at love music, "Gia nella notte densa:"  
Gia nella notte densa   s'estingue ogni clamor.
Now in the dark night  all noise is stilled...
My pounding heart is lulled in this embrace and          calmed.
It is the last and only moment of peace the ill-fated couple will know. There follows a malicious declaration of hatred by Iago, Credo in un Dio crudel ...". Then climax follows relentless climax, the seeds of doubt are sown in innuendo and in dreams. In Greek tragic fashion we watch the hero undo himself . A handkerchief, a half overheard conversation, the swearing of a ferocious blood oath, "Si pel ciel ..." and then a vertiginous fit and near madness by the end of act three with operas most horrifying moment of schadenfreunde - " Ecco il Leone "/. As the multitude applauds he is collapsed in the dust. The final acts murder- suicide comes after an innocent's prayer and the ironic exchange :   
                         Otello : Think on your sins
                                                                             Desdemona: My sin is love
The end comes in odd stillness after a roar from the orchestra at the magnitude of the error with a whispered , "Niun me tema", Let no one fear me. He is already dead, there is only left the plunging of the dagger in his heart at his own hand. At the operas close the night of the premiere, February 5, 1887, there will be twenty calls of encore bringing the composer and cast to the stage.
This week the return of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera with a perfromance that is a true sonic spectacular, featuring Jon Vickers as Otello, Mirella Freni as his doomed wife and Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic; all at the top of their game. You won't want to miss this commited performance of Otello this Saturday at noon by joining us here on KPAC and KTXI.

by Ron Moore

No comments: