Opera in three acts. Running Time: 178 minutes. This is not the opera by Verdi by any means! Unlike Verdi we never get to Cyprus much less entirely set in Cyprus but in Venice and Iago is not as important as Rodrigo here. Rossini’s opera is probably the antithesis of Verdi’s opera. The recording here is a live performance from 1988 with June Anderson as Desdemona, Chris Merritt as Otello, and Rockwell Blake as Rodrigo.
PLOT: Venice, end of the 18th century. Otello is secretly married to Desdemona, the daughter of his enemy. Her father wants to marry her off to Rodrigo, who is nominally supported by Iago who is avenging himself on Otello by making him believe that Desdemona is unfaithful through an intercepted letter.
ACT 1 (just under 80 minutes)
Scene 1: A grand room in the Doge’s palace. (35 Minutes)
0: The overture *, after some vaguely seafaring music we have some standard bel canto orchestral work. It actually sounds like another Rossini overture (possibly the same attached to a different opera knowing who we are talking about). Some of it makes you think of Bellini. Much of it is simply too happy given the subject matter of the opera. There is some slightly reprehensible work in the woodwinds towards the end but as a stand alone entry it is perfectly fine.
8: A chorus of Venetian noblemen praise Otello’s victory over the Turks to a good chorus *.
17: There is a march introducing Otello as he arrives before the Doge and then we have an interesting scene with four tenors. It is mostly a long solo * for Otello with interjections from the Doge, Iago, Rodrigo and latterly the chorus. The most interesting thing here is how low Otello’s music goes, with some of it turning into a baritonal growl. Otherwise the entire episode is rather thankless musically and could be cut a lot.
30: Desdemona’s father Elmiro really wants her to marry Rodrigo (not knowing she is already married to Otello). But he quickly disappears and Iago and Rodrigo have a good bit of tenor duetting to otherwise ordinary music but some good acting * as Iago reveals that he possesses a letter implicating Otello (we will learn that it was from Desdemona and intercepted by Elmiro). It is interesting how Rossini has Iago act as a counter-basso to Rodrigo’s higher tenor (listen up for the florid coloratura bits here, it is the most interesting part so far), yet they are both obviously tenors.
Scene 2: A room in Elmiro’s home.
35: There is a good prelude to this scene featuring a French horn * followed by much recitative between Desdemona (mostly) and Emilia (dramatically interesting but musically unappealing). The duet is only slightly better and I wonder if it could be cut or if any of the plot material could have been re-rewritten as a short recitative.
55: The finale is 31 minutes long and takes a while to warm up although you won’t really notice. It has a good orchestral intro. There is a chorus *, and then Elmiro wants Desdemona to wed Rodrigo.
60: Watch for what the strings are up to * as Elmiro confronts his daughter. Rodrigo is excited but Desdemona is despondent. A trio.
65: Rodrigo tries to woo Desdemona to a nice soft tune *. Desdemona responds nicely, but not all that effectively, it returns as a trio again. Otello arrives and breaks up the wedding plans. Everyone is sad for various reasons.
77: There is a sudden gear change and the music finally has a bit of a beat to it **. What took it so long? Oh well, at least it didn’t feel like almost 80 minutes.
ACT 2: Garden of Elmiro’s home. 55 Minutes.
4: The introduction is a bit better than the previous act, racing and frightened it is a better mood setter as we settle into a recitative between Desdemona and Rodrigo. She wants him to give up. Rodrigo has a really good aria after Desdemona reveals her marriage to Otello **. He refuses and decides to punish Otello because he is obsessed with Desdemona. The aria is very intricate, but Desdemona still has every reason to despair. This number is, however, the best music so far by a long mile.
20: After some recitative between the two ladies, Otello finally shows up again. Iago starts to work on him by showing him Desdemona’s intercepted letter to him, but saying that it was to be sent to Rodrigo, planting the seed of suspicion that will lead the drama to its tragic conclusion. I am surprised at this point by how dull and yet how fast this opera is. The duet between Otello and Iago ** skates around the idea of being a full fledged number, it mostly just propels the plot. It is flighty and lacks in dramatic power, but it is still better than the previous act. The last bit is rather good with some high notes for Otello.
27: Otello confronts Rodrigo in a rather good duet **.
33: Desdemona interposes in a duel, bringing the finale ** with her, this time about 22 minutes in length. They start with a nice trio in unison and then Rodrigo, Otello and finally Desdemona. Otello does not believe his wife’s assurances that Rodrigo’s fantasy exists only in his own mind, but she does convince the audience that this is at least an average opera. The two men go off to fight. After some dry recitative between Desdemona and Emilia the music goes into an even deeper gear and the second half of the finale. Some of her women come to comfort her, to no avail. Men’s chorus arrives to announce that Otello is alive. Elmiro comes on, Desdemona confesses that she is already Otello’s wife and he curses her. This scene, particularly Desdemona’s contribution, is very effective at depicting the decline of a strong and noble in the face of total opposition. The finale minute is especially rousing, the ending orchestral bit is particularly advanced.
Act 3: Desdemona’s bedchamber, night. 43 minutes
0: The entire scene is a five large parts with two smaller parts interjected into the first two parts finale number. The prelude starts with the strongest and most effective music in the score so far. French horn and various woodwinds duke it out over a sea of strings. This is really great *** and it goes directly into Desdemona and Emilia prepping for bedtime.
6: Suddenly, a Gondolier can be heard in the distance to an shimmering but tragic accompaniment ***.
11: The Willow Song ***, starts to a harp accompaniment and is very passionate. At about the 17 minute mark there is what sounds like a chorus gasp. Then the Song returns.
21: Desdemona’s prayer ***. She has dismissed Emilia and is alone. This is less tragic than the Song and has a very lovely and fuller orchestral texture. It feels sort of too short though, because it is very good.
25: The last 18 or so minutes consist of Otello entering and contemplating what he plans to do to Desdemona (kill her). This is slightly less strong **, but still not a return to Act 1.
31: Desdemona starts to wake up and at first is happy to see her husband but his suspicion overwhelms him and frightens her. There is still some strength in the orchestra. Then she starts going all heroic ***, Otello counters her and threatens to strangle her.
37: There is a return of the choral outburst from earlier and then the music becomes extremely serious before what we know is about to happen happens. This is really dramatic music *** just has he STABS her.
40: The last four minutes consist of some orchestral door pounding, Rodrigo arrives and alerts everyone as to where Otello is and denounces Iago. Desdemona’s father asks where she is, Otello admits to killing her, her body is discovered and Otello stabs himself **. Curtain.
I have only rarely seen operas that seriously have starter issues which get better, this is an example of that. The first act of this opera is utterly terrible, it is far too long and at least two of the five numbers could be drastically cut. The second act is much better than the first and the third is better than both of the previous acts and contains probably all of the great music in the opera. There are also problems with the character development. Rodrigo is far more interesting musically (and in complexity) than Otello and for the first and second acts he is sort of the star of this otherwise dim show and he is only threatened by Desdemona in the second act on this front. Desdemona is the star of act 3, however, and it is apparent here that this was the point during which Rossini was most inspired. Coming back to Otello, his character motives and even development seem to pile up just a little too fast. As of the end of act 1, the longest act by far, he is still in love with Desdemona and hardly suspicious that she is unfaithful. It takes only about ten minutes in act 2 with Iago for him to be completely brainwashed by him and the suspicion just leads to its obvious conclusion. Iago is wicked and terrible, but we don’t get enough of him as we do in Verdi’s opera and apart from some simple notes regarding his motivation, we understand little about him otherwise. Desdemona’s father is not a strong character, neither is the Doge who comes off as being window dressing. Meyerbeer wrote in 1818 that Desdemona’s romance and prayer in act 3 essentially saved the show, and he is right. On another note, doesn’t much of the first two acts smell just a bit too much of Romeo and Juliet? Otello breaking up the wedding ceremony in act 1 sounds too much like the one in Capuleti (albeit this latter opera was written 14 years later). Act 3 is about as good and act 1 is dull. But there is far more of act 1 than act 3, and whereas in act 1 I was commenting on small aspects of numbers, in act 3 I became more interesting in the numbers as a whole. This is an interesting development. However, the first act does go by quickly in spite of its massive length. There are periods in the work in which up to four tenors are singing at once, otherwise unaccompanied. Now I love tenors, in fact I am one, and I love tenor-tenor duets, but aren’t there just too many of them in this opera? Also, notice the low tessitura of Otello’s music, it seems to foreshadow Verdi’s take on the character 71 years later. At best, this rates a B.