The characters, though, are complex—especially the title character, to whom Giuseppe Verdi in his opera Otello assigned an Everest of a role. “My singing teacher always said, ‘If you can sing Pagliacci three times in a row in one evening, then you can sing Otello,’” declares South African tenor Johan Botha, who portrays the conflicted Moor in Lyric’s season opener.
Botha,Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Lyric (2012-13), has starred in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and several major German houses. Cast opposite him in the Lyric production is soprano Ana María Martínez, in her eagerly awaited role debut. “Desdemona is such a gorgeous role,” she says. “I remember being an undergraduate and not yet having a grasp on vocal technique, but wanting so much to perform this music. It’s so incredibly wonderful to sing, and to have it vibrating within you is a balm to the soul.” Martínez, Lyric’s Mimì in the company’s initial series of Bohème performances (2012-13), laughingly notes that all the ladies she’s played at Lyric die. “That’s one of the reasons my son has not seen me do those roles. He’s six, so he now understands that mommy is only pretending to be these characters. If he’d seen me do Pagliacci at age two, forget it—he’d have years of therapy ahead of him!”
The soprano sees a message in Otello: “It shows us the power that love has in our lives. And while love is a life force that at times can drive us to tremendous despair and madness, it remains our greatest fulfillment.”
Heightening Otello’s conflict and drama is Verdi’s orchestration, which is far more subtle than in his middle-period operas. As in Wagner,the orchestra is crucial to the drama, illuminating and shading what is portrayed onstage, butthe Verdian gift of melody is always present. “For me Otello is one of the best examples of balance between the dramatic and the intimate,” says French conductor Bertrand de Billy, who will make his Chicago debut conducting Lyric’s performances. “At the beginning, with the chorus onstage, it’s absolutely crazy. Verdi wrote fortissimo, tutta forza. It’s like a big explosion, but you still have tohear what happens onstage! In Act Three you have the Otello-Desdemona duet with their confrontation, and then Otello’s aria. In a way, Otello is the most complete of all operas, and the challenge in conductingit is to prepare it properly, so you can stay very deeply inside it as it moves from the dramatic to the very intimate.”
Lyric’s production by Sir Peter Hall opened the 2001-02 season. This revival is directed by Ashley Dean in his Lyric debut, with Iago sung by German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (who triumphed with Botha and Renée Fleming in this opera last fall at the Met) and the important supporting role of Cassio portrayed by Italian tenor Antonio Poli in his American debut.
In March of 1884, Giuseppe Verdi began composing Otello. His previous opera, Aida, premiered 13 years earlier and in the interim he’d composed no stage works. Otello’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, 29 years younger, was a composer in his own right, having written the well-received Mefistofele in 1867. A journalist and recognized poet, Boito had also furnished the libretto for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Already in 1881, when Verdi had him revise the libretto of Simon Boccanegra, Verdi found in Boito a true collaborator—a man of letters with immense musical knowledge who also understood opera’s theatrical possibilities.
“Verdi would spend months going over the libretto,” says Botha, “looking for just the right meaning in the text. If he wasn’t happy, he’d send it back to Boito, who would rewrite the whole thing. If you compare the Otello libretto with Shakespeare’s Othello, you realize that Boito really captures the spirit and nuance of the Shakespeare play. It’s amazing that Boito was able to put it in a nutshell.”
An Otello performance generally clocks in at two-and-a-half hours. But within that short space of time, the audience is taken on a journey that traverses human emotion from the heights of love and triumph to the depths of despair. The choice of this particular Shakespeare play for the operatic stage was inspired. It’s streamlined Shakespeare, with no confusing subplots and no episodes that detract from the central action. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of an Italian opera.”
The play opens in Venice, where Iago reveals his hatred of Othello and plans to destroy him. Desdemona’s father finds that his daughter has eloped with theMoor and protests to his colleagues in the Venetian senate. Othello and Desdemona are summoned before them to justify their love. They’re soon dispatched to colonial Cyprus, where Othello is to combat theTurkish threat and serve as governor. That’s where Verdi and Boito chose to begin the opera.
Heroes are never interesting if they’re saints; in fact, the more flawed, the more appealing. “Otello is an insecure person,” says Botha. “There are people like that—extremely good at one thing while the rest of their life is a mess. Otello is one of those people—he’s extremely good at fighting wars for the Venetians, but he finds love and goes off the rails completely.”
Those insecurities are played on by the über-villainous Iago, who’s obsessed with control and power. For a time, Verdi considered actually naming the opera Iago. He didn’t, but he assigned the character one of the most complex roles in the baritone repertoire.
Otello’s beloved Desdemona is his polar opposite. “Otello is very complex and needs someone uncomplicated,” Martínez says. “Desdemona’s strength is in her love and devotion. She’s Otello’s fountain of hope, his grounding energy, and his muse. Otello derives great inspiration from her. What happens is a tragedy, and all because of a misunderstanding.”
What happens is that Iago, Otello’s ensign, plants in Otello the seed of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity. From there, Otello descends into a sea of hate and jealousy. “You really have to pace yourself because the jealousy and hate are so real,” says Botha. “If you get too much into the emotions, you go out of control.That’s the danger of this role.”
When he was only 20, Boito had written the verses for Verdi’s “Hymn of Nations.” But a year later in 1863 at a reception for the composer/conductor Franco Faccio (who later conducted Otello’s world premiere at La Scala), Boito made a brief speech about the current state of Italian music. The speech was soon quoted in the Italian press: “Perhaps the man is already born who will restore art, in its purity, on the altar now defiled like the wall of a brothel.”
Verdi, an Italian composer with many triumphantly successful operas to his credit, read a newspaper account of what was said and was deeply insulted.The last librettist he would ever consider was Arrigo Boito! But eventually the appeal of the yet-to-be composed Otello drew Verdi in, and on November 18,1879, he accepted Boito’s finished libretto. He kept it next tohis bed for almost five years, and at the age of 70 started work on this extraordinarily dramatic yet intimate masterpiece.
“It’s haunting and it always stays with you,” says Botha. “There’s a little of Otello in all of us.”