Jeal­ousy is a Dou­ble-edged Sword

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Cui Hao Edited by David Ball

The Ital­ian com­poser Giuseppe Verdi adapted Othello, one of Wil­liam Shake­speare’s four great tragedies, into an opera which pre­miered in 1887 to great ac­claim.

Avaliant Moor­ish gen­eral in the Vene­tian army falls in love with a noble lady and marries her in se­cret. How­ever, tricked into believ­ing she has been un­faith­ful, the gen­eral ends up killing his beloved wife on the night of their wed­ding. When the truth is fi­nally re­vealed, he kills him­self with his sword, his body fall­ing be­side that of his wife.

This tragic love story is Othello, one of Wil­liam Shake­speare’s four great tragedies. Later, the Ital­ian com­poser Giuseppe Verdi adapted the play into an opera which pre­miered in 1887 to great ac­claim. In 2013, to co­in­cide with the 200th an­niver­sary of Verdi’s birth, the Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts in Bei­jing pro­duced a ver­sion of Otello, the com­poser’s most ma­ture and com­plete mas­ter­piece, to mark his out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the world of opera.

Fa­ther of Drama

In 1604, the Palace of White­hall in Lon­don, Eng­land—the largest palace in Europe at that time—staged the fa­mous play­wright Wil­liam Shake­speare’s tragedy Othello.

The touch­ing story led to it be­com­ing con­sid­ered as one of the play­wright’s four great tragedies. Shake­speare was the best­known drama­tist and poet dur­ing the English Re­nais­sance and is re­garded as the “fa­ther of English drama,” hav­ing cre­ated thirty-seven plays in­clud­ing Ham­let, The Mer­chant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet. Like other fa­mous drama­tists around the world, Shake­speare drew on and ab­sorbed many leg­ends from an­cient his­tory into his works. Among them, Othello was based on the story Un Cap­i­tano Moro (“A Moor­ish Cap­tain”) in the He­catommithi by the Ital­ian nov­el­ist Cinthio.

The story tells of a jeal­ous Moor who murders his in­no­cent wife af­ter believ­ing ru­mours about her. He beats his wife Des­de­mona to death with a stock­ing filled with sand and then al­ters the crime scene to try and avoid blame. The story is sim­ple, and be­sides the hero­ine, Des­de­mona, none of the other char­ac­ters are named. In 1603, Shake­speare made a ma­jor adap­ta­tion of the work and turned it into the well-known tragedy Othello.

In Shake­speare’s play, Othello is a Moor­ish (North African) gen­eral in the Vene­tian army. He is sub­jected to racism and ap­pears in­fe­rior, but falls in love with Des­de­mona, the smart and beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of an aris­to­cratic se­na­tor by the name of Bra­ban­tio. Know­ing that the se­na­tor will not agree to their mar­riage, the cou­ple get mar­ried in se­cret. Iago, Othello’s en­sign, hates Othello for hav­ing pro­moted Cas­sio to his lieu­tenant and is also jeal­ous of him be­cause of his beau­ti­ful wife Des­de­mona. Iago main­tains an ap­pear­ance of be­ing hon­est and loyal, but he then fab­ri­cates ev­i­dence to con­vince Othello that his wife is hav­ing an af­fair with Cas­sio. Noth­ing would give Iago more sat­is­fac­tion than de­stroy­ing Othello and Des­de­mona’s happy mar­riage, so he man­ages to ex­ploit the lo­cal aris­to­crat Roderigo—who has a se­cret crush on Des­de­mona—and his own un­wit­ting wife Emilia to trick Othello into believ­ing that Des­de­mona has been un­faith­ful. Othello lets the poi­son of doubt burn like sul­phur in­side of him; his own imag­i­na­tion fer­ment­ing the “ev­i­dence” Iago pro­vided. Tor­tured by envy and ha­tred, he al­most loses his mind. Fi­nally, on their wed­ding night, he stran­gles his loyal and in­no­cent wife Des­de­mona. It is not un­til Iago’s wife un­cov­ers the plot that Othello re­alises the truth and in his re­morse, com­mits sui­cide, fall­ing be­side the body of his wife.

Othello con­tains a se­ries of vivid char­ac­ters such as the Moor­ish gen­eral Othello, the aris­to­cratic Des­de­mona, and the sin­is­ter Iago. Their per­son­al­i­ties are so dif­fer­ent that these three per­sons seem to ap­pear be­fore read­ers’ eyes even with­out fur­ther de­scrip­tions. Othello is an up­right and heroic war­rior with a strong aver­sion to the baser things in life. It is for pre­cisely this rea­son that he is vul­ner­a­ble to Iago’s ru­mours and the story ends in re­morse. The sim­ple Des­de­mona falls in love with Othello and marries him de­spite op­po­si­tion from her fam­ily and dis­crim­i­na­tion from so­ci­ety. Be­fore the mar­riage, she dares to pur­sue her own love and hap­pi­ness and ties the knot with Othello de­spite her par­ents’ dis­ap­proval. How­ever af­ter her mar­riage, she loses her in­de­pen­dence and at­taches her­self en­tirely to her hus­band, putting him above ev­ery­thing else and cloud­ing her mind, which ends in a tragedy. Although their love de­feats racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, it fails to avoid the con­spir­a­cies of Iago. Iago por­trays him­self as loyal, but is deeply treach­er­ous. He hates Othello for not pro­mot­ing him and tries his best to de­stroy both Othello and Des­de­mona. Fi­nally, Iago gets the pun­ish­ment he de­serves.

Sev­eral themes run through Othello, in­clud­ing love and jeal­ousy, credulity and dou­ble-deal­ing, as well as in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage. Othello’s tragedy can partly be at­trib­uted to racial dis­crim­i­na­tion; and the

loss of his na­ture is closely as­so­ci­ated with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. It is racism as well as Iago’s plot­ting that makes Othello—an in­tim­i­dat­ing Moor­ish gen­eral—sus­pi­cious of his wife’s faith­ful­ness to him. At first, he is con­vinced that Des­de­mona is loyal to him, but later he wavers as he grows sus­pi­cious of her and her mo­tive for love. In the end, he of­fers a stark de­nial of her love and kills her in the be­lief that she is un­chaste, thereby caus­ing tragedy for Des­de­mona and him­self.

One con­tem­po­rary re­view of the tragedy sug­gested, “Othello is not about jeal­ousy but about Othello’s jeal­ousy, the par­tic­u­lar kind that a Moor who marries a Vene­tian lady could sense.” Another critic, com­mented, in half-jest, “The story has a rich moral sig­nif­i­cance. It teaches wives to take good care of their hand­ker­chiefs.”

King of Opera

In 1887, the opera Otello made its de­but at the Teatro alla Scala in Mi­lan. The per­for­mance was a re­sound­ing suc­cess with the au­di­ences re­fus­ing to leave their seats and chant­ing “Long live Verdi!” The di­rec­tor of this opera, Giuseppe Verdi, adapted Shake­speare’s play into a mas­ter­piece that shook the the­atre-world. That year, Verdi was al­ready 74 years old.

Verdi was born into a poor pro­vin­cial fam­ily in Parma, Italy in 1813; his whole life spent in the tur­moil of Ital­ian wars at the time. Based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of or­di­nary peo­ple, his works drama­tised the lives and in­ner worlds of his char­ac­ters in new ways, fea­tur­ing both the ro­man­tic hero­ism and psy­cho­log­i­cal tragedy of less-im­por­tant per­sons. The opera Otello ex­am­ines moral themes and the de­fects of hu­man­ity such as love and trust, jeal­ousy and ha­tred, credulity and in­fe­ri­or­ity.

Verdi be­came en­am­oured with Shake­speare’s plays from an early age, and in 1865 he adapted Mac­beth into an opera. The pre­miere un­for­tu­nately did not live up to the au­di­ences’ ex­pec­ta­tions, which led Verdi to shelve his am­bi­tions to adapt the Bard’s plays. How­ever, in 1871 af­ter the re­lease of Aida to great ac­claim, Verdi stopped writ­ing op­eras. More than 10 years of suc­cess­ful per­for­mances of Aida later, he be­gan to con­sider his next plan: how to sur­pass the heights achieved by this work. At that time, Othello popped into his mind. There was no doubt that the har­row­ing, naked de­scrip­tion of hu­man na­ture in the play would prove to be a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge. In 1880, Verdi asked his long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor and fa­mous poet, Ar­rigo Boito, to write the li­bretto for Otello. Boito in­te­grated the Re­nais­sance spirit from Shake­speare’s plays with 19th cen­tury ro­man­ti­cism. Dur­ing the Ro­man­tic Pe­riod, the wor­ship of those ro­man­tic heroes reached its peak. In con­trast with the Re­nais­sance when artists ex­plored the gap be­tween peo­ple’s in­ner world and their out­ward be­hav­iour, works from the Ro­man­tic Pe­riod fo­cused di­rectly on hu­man na­ture, ad­vo­cat­ing the idea that peo­ple were in­trin­si­cally evil. In Otello, the role of Iago is so typ­i­cal of this thought that Boito even con­sid­ered nam­ing the opera “Iago.”

Based on Boito’s in­ge­nious adap­ta­tion, Verdi trans­lated Shake­speare’s po­etry and char­ac­ters into highly gifted mu­sic. In or­der to re­pro­duce the dra­matic ef­fect of the orig­i­nal, he tried some­thing com­pletely un­prece­dented: in­no­va­tively por­tray­ing the tragic hero Othello, the evil en­sign Iago and the kind and in­no­cent Des­de­mona in vivid and com­plete ways. The com­pact rhythm, deftly in­ter­wo­ven mu­sic and drama, and the grad­ual emer­gence of themes such as good and evil, love and jeal­ousy, trust and sus­pi­cion meant the opera was well de­serv­ing of the ac­claim as the “most gifted trans­la­tion” of Shake­speare’s plays. The opera tells the story of Othello, who, af­ter fight­ing against the in­vad­ing Turks, re­ceives a warm wel­come from the peo­ple of Cyprus. The treach­er­ous en­sign Iago holds a grudge against Othello for not pro­mot­ing him to lieu­tenant. At a ban­quet to cel­e­brate the vic­tory, he gets Cas­sio drunk and pro­vokes a fight, which leads to Cas­sio be­ing dis­missed by Othello. How­ever, Iago is still not sat­is­fied. He per­suades Cas­sio to ask Othello’s wife, Des­de­mona, to con­vince her hus­band to re­in­state Cas­sio. At the same time, he uses a hand­ker­chief that Des­de­mona has dropped as “ev­i­dence” of her hav­ing an af­fair with Cas­sio. Later, Iago’s plots and schemes lead to Othello killing the in­no­cent Des­de­mona. In the end, Iago’s wife un­der­stands what her hus­band has been do­ing and re­veals the con­spir­acy. Othello re­alises the truth and in his re­gret, com­mits sui­cide us­ing his sword be­side the body of his wife.

The opera Otello ap­pears in four acts and is con­sid­ered a clas­sic by the opera mas­ter Verdi as well as a high­light af­ter the huge suc­cess of Aida and his six­teen years of re­treat from the spot­light. The opera

fore­goes the first act of Shake­speare’s orig­i­nal work and be­gins with the storm in the first scene of Act II. The ma­ni­a­cal and ir­reg­u­lar mu­sic sym­bol­ises Othello’s vi­o­lent per­son­al­ity, whilst some de­tails from the first act in the orig­i­nal are re­ar­ranged into sev­eral duets. Verdi only wrote so­los for the play’s main char­ac­ters in or­der to high­light their im­por­tance as well as clearly ex­press their in­ner worlds; with dra­matic con­flict be­ing em­pha­sised by cho­ruses and con­tra­pun­tal voice parts. With this mas­ter­piece, Verdi broke his long si­lence fol­low­ing the suc­cess of Aida and led to him be­ing hailed as the “king of opera” and the “opera world’s Shake­speare.”

With rich mu­si­cal im­agery, Verdi rep­re­sented the mag­nif­i­cent and touch­ing story of Shake­speare’s orig­i­nal work.

Otello drew on some of com­poser Richard Wag­ner’s cre­ative tech­niques from mu­si­cal dra­mas, fo­cused more closely on the per­for­mance of the orches­tra, and wove the mu­sic and plot closely to­gether, thus mak­ing the singing more dra­matic. At the same time, the melodies he adopted were much more pro­found and emo­tional than the works from his mid-ca­reer.

Mas­ter of Re­al­ism

In 2013, the Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts (NCPA), in­vited the in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned opera di­rec­tor Gian­carlo Del Monaco to stage the opera Otello in Bei­jing and asked Pier Gior­gio Mo­randi to serve as the con­duc­tor to mark the 200th an­niver­sary of Verdi’s birth. The opera ex­em­pli­fied Verdi’s decades of cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ence, with which he trans­lated Shake­speare’s prose and char­ac­ters into a highly ac­com­plished opera. The work com­bined a pro­found and ma­jes­tic re­al­ism on­stage with a po­etic at­mos­phere cre­ated by pro­jected images which strength­ened its vis­ual and dra­matic im­pact. The per­for­mances of tenor Wei Song and so­prano Zhang Lip­ing also left a pro­found mark upon au­di­ences.

The dis­tinc­tive Ncpa-staged per­for­mances of Otello also broke new ground when it came to stage de­sign. A beau­ti­ful, mod­ern three-di­men­sional back­ground com­bined with soft and hard stage props, in­clud­ing both real scenery items such as re­liefs, plat­forms, beam­col­umn frames and plants as well as vir­tual scenes pro­jected be­hind, to help im­merse au­di­ences in the per­for­mance. The whole set­ting was sim­ple yet grand, mag­nif­i­cent yet ex­quis­ite.

Wei Song por­trayed the tragic hero vividly us­ing his pure and ex­plo­sive singing voice. His well-honed act­ing skills brought Othello’s sad­ness and re­morse to life, touch­ing the hearts of the au­di­ence and earn­ing him plau­dits for “the best ever por­trayal of Othello in China.” Zhang Lip­ing, with her solid singing skills, pure voice and flex­i­ble vo­cal­ism, in­ter­preted the sen­ti­men­tal and grace­ful Des­de­mona, pre­sent­ing the purest wo­man in Shake­speare’s and Verdi’s works and as such was hailed as “the most beau­ti­ful Des­de­mona.”

The NCPA’S 2013 pro­duc­tion of Otello was a box of­fice suc­cess due to its ex­cel­lent stag­ing and strong cast. In 2014, it was brought back, this time to com­mem­o­rate the 450th an­niver­sary of Shake­speare’s birth and once again proved a great suc­cess.

As the cur­tains opened, a tem­pes­tu­ous storm in the port of Cyprus came into view, with Othello’s war­ship bobbing up and down with the waves in the re­al­is­tic 3D pro­jec­tion. The choir be­gan the im­pos­ing “storm mu­sic” set against the lively mu­sic played by the NCPA orches­tra, paving the way for the tri­umphant re­turn of the Vene­tian gen­eral. Othello’s war­ship, hav­ing braved the winds and waves, ap­proached from the dis­tance, while the coast of Cyprus slowly emerged from be­hind the cur­tain. This ef­fect was achieved through the use of a tech­nique nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with films—a lap dis­solve—which al­lows long shots and close-ups to ap­pear si­mul­ta­ne­ously as they fade in and out. This dra­matic vis­ual im­pact was fol­lowed by the ap­pear­ance of a mag­nif­i­cent sea­port which steadily rose against the waves on stage…

Wei Song more than lived up to ev­ery­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions in the role of Othello. When he ap­peared, he chanted “Re­joice!” with pre­cise in­to­na­tion and his ex­plo­sive, deep voice. The first act, in which scenes changed like a movie, was fol­lowed by a se­ries of heavy and grand re­al­is­tic scenes. The sec­ond act gave a concise de­scrip­tion of the treach­ery and de­ceit of Iago played by Zhang Feng, whilst Wei Song was able to con­vey Othello’s grad­ual fall into the abyss. As the plot pro­gressed, Iago per­suaded Othello to make him­self hid­den so that he could see for him­self the “ev­i­dence” that Iago had care­fully fab­ri­cated to show Cas­sio’s adul­tery. The three men were sep­a­rated by an or­na­men­tal iron gate which acted as a bound­ary, with one side in the dark and the other bathed in light. In Act II when Iago steals Des­de­mona’s hand­ker­chief, an or­na­men­tal iron gate also sep­a­rates Othello’s house in the front of the stage from the beau­ti­ful gar­den on the Mediter­ranean coast in the back, cre­at­ing a tense but aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing scene. To re­pro­duce the scene in the opera, the gar­den be­hind the gate was cre­ated us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial flow­ers in­stead of be­ing pro­jected. Ac­cord­ing to di­rec­tor Gian­carlo Del Monaco, he and sev­eral of his staff bought the flow­ers in bulk at sev­eral mar­kets in Bei­jing. They also bor­rowed ex­quis­ite gar­ments from opera houses in Europe in an ef­fort to recre­ate the orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance of the Re­nais­sance.

In Act III, the scenes fea­tur­ing Othello’s ques­tion­ing of Des­de­mona and the ar­rival of the Vene­tian am­bas­sador, which are gen­er­ally com­bined, were pre­sented in­di­vid­u­ally this time; and the di­rec­tor made use of the the­atre’s ad­vanced stage ma­chin­ery to al­low the towering cas­tle to in­stantly change into a har­bour wharf at sun­set. In the fol­low­ing act when Des­de­mona sings the “Wil­low Song,” di­rec­tor Gian­carlo Del Monaco had a sin­gle wil­low tree placed on stage. Zhang Lip­ing’s ren­di­tion of this fa­mous aria was able to move au­di­ences to tears and leave them call­ing for more with her im­pres­sive singing and per­for­mance.

“He was born for glory, and I for love.” In her fi­nal mo­ments, Des­de­mona whis­pers fee­bly that “my sin is love,” in a scene that is mov­ing to all those present. From the Moor first de­picted by Cinthio, through to Shake­speare’s play and Verdi’s opera pre­sented by the NCPA, the tragic love story of a gen­eral who kills his wife on his wed­ding night has been touch­ing the hearts of au­di­ences for more than four hun­dred years.

A scene from Othello per­formed by TNT The­atre Bri­tain

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