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by Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by Arrigo Boito

Based on Othello by William Shakespeare

The Cast


Francesco Tamagno, the first Otello
(La Scala, 1887)

Otello, a Moor and a Venetian generalTenor
Desdemona, Otello’s wifeSoprano
Iago, Otello’s ensignBaritone
Emilia, Iago’s wifeMezzo-Soprano
Cassio, Otello’s lieutenantTenor
Roderigo, a Venetian, in love with DesdemonaTenor
Lodovico, Venetian ambassadorBass
Montano, former Governor of CyprusBass
A HeraldBass

Soldiers, sailors, Venetians, Cypriots, heralds, innkeeper, servants.

The Story

Otello is set on the island of Cyprus at the end of the 15th Century.

Act I

A port on Cyprus, night

A great storm batters the coast of Cyprus. A tense crowd watches as Otello’s ship struggles toward port. The ship makes it through, and Otello makes a triumphant entrance onto the quay (“Esultate”). The crowd cheers when he announces that he has defeated the Turks.

The storm abates. Roderigo is bitterly disappointed that Otello has survived, because he is in love with Desdemona. Iago promises to help Roderigo win the lady. He himself hates the Moor because Cassio was promoted to lieutenant over him. They discuss the matter privately as the islanders continue their victory celebration with a dance around the fire.

Iago invites Roderigo and Cassio to drink, but Cassio declines because he has already had enough. He relents when Iago proposes a toast to Desdemona. Cassio sings her praises, prompting Iago to insinuate to Roderigo that Cassio may be his love rival. Iago continues to ply Cassio with drink and gets him to join in a boisterous song (“Inaffia l’ugola”). By the end of it Cassio is reeling. Iago now tells Roderigo to pick a fight with Cassio. Meanwhile, Montano arrives and is shocked to find Cassio in this condition. Iago tells Montano that Cassio is like this every night, and Montano vows to tell Otello. Roderigo laughs at Cassio, who becomes enraged and draws his sword. Montano tries to calm him down, but Cassio attacks him. Iago tells Roderigo to go raise the alarm, then pretends to try to stop the fight. Montano is wounded.

Otello appears and orders the two to drop their swords. He asks Iago how the fight started, but Iago claims he doesn’t know. Cassio begs Otello’s pardon, but the Moor is infuriated to find that he has wounded Montano. Desdemona, awakened by the tumult, now appears. Otello greets her lovingly and then demotes Cassio, to Iago’s delight. Otello orders the crowd to disperse.

Otello and Desdemona, alone under the stars, recall how their love began; she loved him for the dangers he had endured, and he loved her for her pity (“Già nella notte densa”). They kiss as Venus rises in the night sky.

Act II

A hall in the castle

Iago encourages Cassio to seek Desdemona’s intercession in getting himself reinstated as lieutenant. But when he is alone, Iago expounds his malicious philosophy (“Credo in un Dio crudel” — “I believe in a cruel God”).

Desdemona appears in the garden with Emilia. Iago pushes Cassio to speak to Desdemona, eagerly awaiting Otello’s arrival so he can see them together. Iago pretends to stare at the couple, and when Otello enters, Iago mutters, “I like not that.” Otello asks what he means, but Iago says it was nothing. Otello thinks he sees Cassio walking away from Desdemona, but Iago says that it wasn’t Cassio, because Cassio wouldn’t slink off guiltily like that. Iago asks him if Cassio knew Desdemona before Otello did. Otello says he did, and wonders why Iago asked. Iago says it was nothing, and asks if Otello trusts Cassio. Otello replies that Cassio often carried messages between him and Desdemona. Iago seems surprised, prompting Otello to ask if he thinks Cassio is honest. Iago just plays dumb. Otello now becomes angry and suspicious. He orders Iago to say why he said, “I like not that” while watching Cassio with Desdemona. Iago refuses to explain, warning Otello to beware of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Otello will not entertain suspicions without proof. Iago is glad of the opportunity to show his fidelity to Otello.

As a group of young girls greets Desdemona in the garden, Iago advises Otello to watch and listen to Desdemona closely. She comes forward with Emilia to meet her husband and immediately begins to intercede for Cassio. She acknowledges that she had just been with him in the garden, and that he is grieving at having displeased Otello. Otello curtly refuses to forgive him. Desdemona, surprised, asks him if he is ill. Otello replies that he has a headache. Desdemona offers to bind his head with her handkerchief, but he throws it down and orders her to leave. Emilia picks up the handkerchief. Desdemona begs Otello’s pardon for having unwittingly offended him, and tries to comfort him. Otello wallows in self-pity, convincing himself that she is unfaithful to him because he is black, and uncouth, and old. Iago, meanwhile, sidles up to Emilia and demands the handkerchief. At first she refuses, suspecting mischief, but he wrenches it from her, reveling in his success at trapping Otello.

Otello orders everyone to leave, but Iago lurks in the background, watching his misery. He then goes cheerfully up to the Moor and tells him not to think about it anymore. Otello becomes infuriated, blaming Iago for having told him about Desdemona and Cassio, because he will never have peace again (“Ora e per sempre addio”). When Iago tries to calm him, Otello threatens to kill him unless he produces proof positive of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago pompously declares that it does not pay to be honest, which calms Otello a little. He cannot make up his mind whether Desdemona is unfaithful or not, so he again asks for proof. Iago asks what kind of proof — would he want to see the lovers together? Otello cannot bear the thought. So Iago provides his first “proof”: he heard Cassio talking in his sleep about Desdemona. Otello is ready to accept this, but Iago, pretending to be reasonable, reminds him that it was only Cassio’s dream — although it may help corroborate other evidence. Iago asks Otello if he has ever seen Desdemona with a certain handkerchief. Otello remembers it, because it was his first gift to her. Closing in for the kill, Iago tells him that he saw Cassio with it. Otello is now at the pinnacle of rage, crying out for blood. He swears vengeance, while Iago swears fealty to him.


The great hall of the castle

A herald announces that ambassadors from Venice are about to arrive. Iago tells Otello that he has summoned Cassio, and advises the Moor to watch him carefully. Iago leaves as Desdemona enters. Otello greets her with elaborate courtesy. But as soon as she mentions Cassio, he becomes agitated. He tells her that he feels ill and asks to borrow her handkerchief. She gives him one, but it’s not the one he had given her. When she says that she doesn’t have that one with her, he warns her that it would mean great misfortune if she were to lose it — or give it away — because it is a magic handkerchief. He demands that she bring it to him immediately. Desdemona becomes frightened, but then calms down, believing that he is joking. She resumes pleading for Cassio as Otello continues to demand the handkerchief. She finally realizes that he is in earnest. He forces her to look into his eyes and swear that she is faithful. She swears, but he insists that she is unchaste. Devastated, she pleads with him, but he tearfully orders her away. She begs to know how she offended him, and he calls her a courtesan. She swears that she is not. He takes her hand with mock courtesy and apologizes — for having mistaken her “for that cunning whore of Venice that married with Othello.” Then he pushes her out of the room. Alone, he bitterly reflects that he could have borne any misfortune but this. He vows to make Desdemona confess.

Iago announces that Cassio has arrived and bids Otello to hide. Iago ushers Cassio in. Cassio was hoping to meet Desdemona there to talk about her intercession with Otello. Iago tells him to wait, and encourages him to pass the time by talking about his amorous adventures with his mistress, “Bianca.” He and Cassio start laughing, which enrages Otello. Cassio then shows Iago a woman’s handkerchief left in his house by an unknown hand. Iago takes it and waves it around to make sure Otello sees it from his hiding place.

Trumpets herald the arrival of the Venetian ambassadors. Iago urges Cassio to leave before Otello arrives. Otello now emerges and asks Iago to get him poison with which to kill Desdemona. Iago suggests that strangulation in the bed she has defiled would be more appropriate. Iago will take care of Cassio. Otello promotes him to lieutenant. Iago reminds him that the ambassadors have arrived, and suggests that it would look better if Desdemona were present when he receives them.

The Ambassadors and their entourage, led by Lodovico, greet Otello as the “Lion of St. Mark.” Lodovico asks for Cassio. Iago tells him that Cassio is out of favor, and Desdemona remarks that she hopes he will return to Otello’s good graces. Otello, pretending to read, angrily whispers to her to be silent. But when she asks his pardon, he moves to strike her. Lodovico, horrified, restrains him as Desdemona recoils, weeping. Otello calls for Cassio to be brought to him, in order to see Desdemona’s reaction. He announces that the Doge has recalled him to Venice and that his successor as governor of Cyprus will be Cassio. Iago is furious, but Otello imagines that Cassio is upset, and takes Desdemona’s continued weeping as sorrow for Cassio. He throws her to the ground. She despairs as the crowd pities her and Iago urges Roderigo to kill Cassio.

Otello demands that everyone leave. Desdemona calls out to him, but he curses her. Emilia and Lodovico lead her away. As Iago watches, Otello becomes delirious, crying out, “The handkerchief!” and falling in a faint. Hearing the crowd outside cheering Otello, Iago contemptuously regards his prostrate body: “Here is the Lion.”

Act IV

Desdemona’s chamber

Emilia helps Desdemona prepare for bed. Desdemona tells her that Otello was more gentle, and bade her to await him in bed. She asks Emilia to lay out her wedding nightgown, and asks that if she should die, it should be her shroud. Emilia discourages her from thinking such thoughts, but Desdemona is terribly sad. As Emilia brushes her hair, she sings an old song of disappointed love (“Salce”):

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her and softened the stones —
Sing willow, willow, willow —
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

She bids Emilia goodbye and embraces her as if for the last time. Then she prays (“Ave Maria”) and lies down to sleep.

Otello enters through a secret door. Putting out the light, he is about to kill her, but he stops to kiss her. At the third kiss she awakens. He asks her if she has said her prayers, and tells her to be sure to ask forgiveness for any unconfessed crimes, for he does not want to kill her soul. Terrified, she cries out for mercy, but he accuses her of loving Cassio. She frantically denies it. She tells Otello to bring Cassio there to verify it, but Otello tells her that Cassio is dead. Desdemona again begs him not to kill her, to at least allow her time to pray, but it is too late. He suffocates her.

Emilia bangs on the door. Otello lets her in, and she tells him that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona weakly calls out that she has been unjustly murdered. Emilia rushes to her and asks who has done this to her, but Desdemona says she has done it herself. She bids Emilia farewell and dies. Otello admits that he has killed her because she was Cassio’s lover, and that Iago told him so. Emilia, stunned that he would believe such a lie, calls for help.

Lodovico, Cassio, and Iago rush in. Emilia tries to get Iago to tell the truth, but he refuses. Otello cites the handkerchief as proof. Emilia explains that she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago. Montano arrives with soldiers and announces that the dying Roderigo has revealed Iago’s plot. Otello demands that Iago explain himself. Iago rushes off. Otello reaches for his sword, but Lodovico demands it from him. Otello tells them not to be afraid of him, for his journey is ended. He goes to Desdemona and embraces her body, crying out for her. Then he stabs himself, and, kissing Desdemona for the last time, dies.

© 2005 Linda Cantoni