Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Who Puts the "Oh!" in Otello?

(reflections on the opera OTELLO, libretto by Arrigo Boito, music by Giussepi Verdi;  Met Opera HD broadcast Oct. 27, 2012: starring Renée Fleming, Johan Botha, Falk Struckmann.)

John Botha and Renee Fleming in Act One; Falk Struckmann in Jago's "Credo," Act Two.

Which is harder to believe: that Othello should, in just one afternoon, grow murderously jealous of angelic Desdemona; or that he ever loved her at all?  Yet
we do believe both propositions, against our better judgement, and we're moved to pity and terror by Shakespeare's Othello. When that happens during a performance of the opera Otello, is it because, or in spite of, the amendments of the librettist and composer?

Librettist Arrigo Boito telescopes Shakespeare's first couple of acts into just a few dozen lines of sung verse.  A composer himself, he minimizes words to maximize opportunities for his musical collaborator. I don't have the script in front of me, but the entire script for Act One goes something like this, minus repetitions and details:

CHORUS:  O, it's a terrible storm at sea. (Great storm music) We pray that our commander Otello will survive. (storm music subsides, and martial music begins)
OTELLO:  We defeated the Turks.  Now celebrate.  My captain Cassio is in charge. Come, Desdemona, let's go to bed! (she goes with him silently, smiling and beautiful)
JAGO:   (to Roderigo) If you want Desdemona, help me to disgrace young Cassio, whom Otello preferred for captain over me! I'll get him drunk.  You pick a fight with
CHORUS:  Let's drink. (rousing drinking song
CASSIO:  My head is spinning.
JAGO:  Have more!  (His music snakes down a chromatic scale in a strange braying way. It's wonderful and creepy.)
RODERIGO:  [Insult]!  (Roderigo's fight with CASSIO becomes a general riot)
OTELLO:   (storms on with Desdemona, in bed clothes) Stop!  Cassio, you're demoted. 
(Everyone leaves, and Cassio exits, ashamed, watched by Desdemona and Jago.  Desdemona remains for long duet with Otello)  Remember how we met, Desdemona?
DESDEMONA: I loved you for your adventures as slave and soldier. 
BOTH:  I love you.  I always will. 

Boito sets everything up in just those words, while Verdi can sweep us along with storm music, dance music, fight music, and this great love duet. It ended, if I heard it right, with the lovers chanting in something close to monotone, while a bass droned underneath, and the upper notes of the orchestra pulled farther upward, straining the chords to an uneasy effect as the lovers sing of their eternal devotion.

In the scenes that follow, Boito preserves swaths of Shakespeare's dialogue, but he hands Verdi and the singers a couple showstoppers that only opera could devise.  There's Jago's "Credo," when he snarls that he believes in a god of destruction, and after death?  "Nothing!"  The music (and singer Falk Struckmann) dismiss all notion of afterlife or meaning with a wave of music - a contemptuous gesture. 

The temptation of Otello is chilling and hilarious, too, as Jago disturbs the trusting Otello's faith with nothing more than hints, mostly echoes of Otello:  "What do you think?" asks the general.  Jago echoes, "Think, my Lord?"  Once, Otello even mimics Jago back at him, tune and all -- getting one of the few laughs in the show. 

There's a quartet, as Jago fights with Emilia on one side of the stage while Otello wonders if, being a black man and a foreigner, he doesn't understand these subtle Venetians.  Here, by skipping all of Shakespeare's Act One, scenes 1 and 2, Boito sacrifices one of Iago's most effective insinuating lines:  "She did betray her father, marrying you" [and may betray thee].  Johan Botho, in the title role, effectively communicated Otello's bewilderment and self-doubt here, allowing us some sympathy with him later.  Yes, he's stupidly convinced by a flimsy piece of "evidence" -- that damn handkerchief supposedly given to her supposed lover Cassio -- but he also feels as if his great love and trust have been betrayed by a cabal of "super-subtle Venetians" (as Shakespeare put it).

In Act Three, Boito includes the horrible moment when Otello seems to ask Desdemona's forgiveness: "Forgive me," he says, and the music softens as Desdemona approaches him, "I mistook you for that whore of Venice who deceived Otello." Following Shakespeare's "Willow Song," Desdemona sings "Ave Maria," beginning as a monotone chant over turbulent music, deepening into an aching, hopeless prayer.  Renee Fleming is a beautiful woman who projects intelligence and goodness, but it's Desdemona's own intelligence and innocent trusting courage that comes through, no matter who plays her. 

These characters, this situation, these emotions, all shot through with Jago's vicious creativity, constitute a loom where actors, directors, and composer Verdi can spin their magic.   It's an ugly story, hard to swallow, hard to watch, but somehow worth the discomfort. 

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