Giuseppe Verdi’s life spanned most of the nineteenth century, and he is perhaps the quintessential Romantic opera composer. Otello is one of his greatest masterpieces, but is intriguingly an opera Verdi was initially reluctant to write. Verdi had retired from composition (following in the footsteps of his great Italian predecessor, Gioachino Rossini, who retired for decades to indulge his passion for cooking) after the success of Aida (1871). Giulio Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, was understandably determined to convince his cash cow to return to publishing and had apparently spent a decade attempting to coerce Verdi into a return to composition before he persuaded him to read the new libretto for Shakespeare’s Othello written by Arrigo Boito.
When the opera was eventually completed, in November 1886, Verdi had produced one of his greatest masterpieces. A taut, dark and highly charged work, it is also one of the most dramatically satisfying works in the repertoire. It includes three of the great operatic roles in Otello, Desdemona and Iago and also contains highly developed orchestral writing. All in all, the emotional effect of the opera is enormous, and the very end is among the most dramatic, heartbreaking moments in opera.
The moment opens just after Otello has strangled his wife, the beautiful Desdemona, having been led to believe that she has been unfaithful to him. In a typically operatic dénouement, Otello realizes he has been hoodwinked by the evil Iago (one of the great operatic villains). He grieves over the death of his innocent wife and plunges his dagger into his breast and dies by her side – and this is just two of the numerous gruesome deaths within the plot of Otello. It should go without saying that all this drama is facilitating some really beautiful moments, but what separates this conclusion from finales of other operas which end with the death of one or more protagonists (Tosca, La Traviata, and so on) is the reaction of the orchestra to the deaths in the final bars: instead of one last display of fireworks, Verdi allows the orchestra to die away, a much more modern and satisfying response to the tragedy on stage.
This is one of our favourite opera moments. What’s one of yours?