Shakespeare and opera: Jealousy and tragedy in Verdi’s Otello

Desdemona and Otello
Leah Crocetto (Desdemona) and Russell Thomas (Otello) in WNO’s Otello. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I find it fascinating that Verdi’s last two operas were both inspired by Shakespeare: Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), yet they are very different in story, style, and tone. Verdi looked to the Bard’s plays of Othello (1604) and the Merry Wives of Windsor (1600), plus the Henry plays, as a catalyst. There are plenty of academic tomes to read on the subject, but what interests me the most is how these two titans were each consumed with the themes of jealousy to drive the stories of these diverse works and how one is a powerful tragedy and the other a poignant comedy of human foibles.

Both operas hinge on the protagonists being tricked by deceit; one with tragic results and one with comedic outcome. In Otello, it is Iago’s insinuating manner that makes Otello believe his wife, Desdemona, to be unfaithful and eventually leads to him murdering her. He demands “ocular proof,” a line that comes from Shakespeare, and Verdi sets it so powerfully – and it is, of course, the famous handkerchief.

Deception in Falstaff plays out quite happily, as Sir John is convinced by Mistress Quickly that Lady Alice Ford wants to have a tryst with him. As it turns out, she and the other wives of Windsor trick him and he ends up being dumped with a lot of dirty linen into the filthy Thames. On the way there, her husband, Master Ford, is consumed with jealousy but learns his wife’s trickery has actually only proven her love. Alice comes out with a happier ending than Desdemona.

Iago and Otello
George Gagnidze (Iago) and Russell Thomas (Otello) in WNO’s Otello. Photo by Scott Suchman

At Washington National Opera we are performing Otello right now and there are a few things I would love to share about this opera. Verdi, inspired by Shakespeare’s style, made this music so different from other works as it is much more internal, almost like monologues, always delving into the character’s thoughts. There is only one big piece of ensemble writing in the whole opera, so un-Verdi-like. Each of the three protagonists, Otello, Iago, and Desdemona, have multiple solo moments when they sing an aria where they are only expressing feelings; this is very different than other works of his where an aria is communicating narratively or moving the drama forward with another person onstage.

I think in Otello, it seems Verdi is really trying to mimic the power of just the word in the voice. So much so that parts of it feel truly intimate and almost conversational, but then he has the orchestra come in with a huge wall of sound to convey the depths of the emotions in balance to their internal thoughts. Even though Wagner and Verdi never met, and both acted like they disdained each other, I am sure Verdi took something from Wagner since in his writing the singers declaim much of the text and the orchestra carries the interior feelings.

One thing that opera can deliver that Shakespeare cannot is the power of the choral writing. The writing of the chorus in Otello is different than most of Verdi’s other operas. In the first act, they create the drama in the opening with almost 20 minutes of uninterrupted singing. Their music tells us everything about what is to come in terms of the storms, both literally in nature and figuratively among the protagonists.

This is an opera not to be missed for lovers of Shakespeare, as of the three works that inspired Verdi (the third being Macbeth), this has the most unique and brilliant mix of poetry with the music and drama.

Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center: Otello (Oct 26-Nov 16)