Jealousy is a Double-edged Sword
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