Honoring the Bard: Verdi's 'Otello'

woo-1629-otello-verdi-storyAt first glance, it seems that Giuseppe Verdi's Shakespeare-based operas would have plenty of company in the world's theaters -- especially this year, as the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death.

After all, any number of great composers have found success with music inspired by Shakespeare.  Tchaikovsky did it twice, with his famous Fantasy Overture, "Romeo and Juliet," and an orchestral fantasia after The Tempest. Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream may be the most famous work he ever composed, and both Dvorak and Richard Strauss wrote dramatic, Shakespeare-inspired tone poems.  

So, it would be natural to assume that we'd also hear plenty of Shakespeare in the opera house.  But it's not that easy.  While programmers of orchestral concerts have plenty of popular, Shakespeare-related music to choose from, that's not the case when it comes to opera.

To be sure, there is hardly a shortage of Shakespeare-based operas; there are hundreds of them.  Yet somehow, Shakespeare's dramas have proven mysteriously difficult to set to music.  As a result, while the quadricentennial year has seen a number of obscure Shakespeare operas emerging from the musical shadows, when it comes to the more standard repertory -- operas that reliably draw eager crowds -- there's just not much to choose from.  

Of all the operas based on Shakespeare's works, only a few make regular appearances in today's theaters.  Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet is one, along with Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The other obvious candidates are all by Verdi: Macbeth, Falstaff, and the great drama featured here this week: Otello.

Verdi's career was not only amazingly successful, but also remarkably long. He lived from 1813 until 1901, and his operas spanned a period of nearly six decades. Still, there were bumps in the road. When Verdi was in his 60's, he seemed to lose enthusiasm. He wasn't thrilled with the music of his younger colleagues, and for more than 10 years he didn't write a single, new opera.

Then two old friends approached him -- publisher Giulio Ricordi and librettist Arrigo Boito.  It had been almost 40 years since Verdi composed Macbeth, and the two suggested he might turn to Shakespeare again, with a setting of Othello.

Verdi took them up on it. Though he wrote only two more operas -- the profound tragedy Otello and the wistful comedy Falstaff -- both are rooted in Shakespeare, and they may just be the two finest Shakespeare-based operas ever composed.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Otello from the Grand Liceu Theater in Barcelona.  The international cast includes Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Desdemona, American tenor Marc Heller in the title role, and Italian baritone Marco Vratogna as Iago, in a production led by conductor Philippe Auguin.