Verdi’s “Otello” is arguably the greatest opera ever written. Premiering on Feb. 5, 1887 amidst tremendous fanfare and anticipation, Verdi’s second-to-last work was one of the few instances where the hype was not only met but tremendously exceeded.
To that point, Verdi was recognized as a genius, his operatic output among the greatest work of any composer to that time. To see him back at it after over a decade-long absence was a gift, regardless of what he managed in “Otello.”
But the composer, afraid of what the risk would mean if he failed to put out his best, found another gear in not only his vaunted melodic invention, but his dramatic sensibility.
The structure of the libretto by Arigo Boito is pure genius and his insertion of religious themes and images throughout the work actually serve as a dramatic framework.
Shakespeare vs. Boito/Verdi
The presence of religion is always rather obscure in Shakespeare. Characters will throw around the words “Heaven” or “God” with more colloquial connotations than with true religious fervor, but the tenor of religious belief is far more resonant in the opera, echoing a development in Verdi’s own operas and Boito’s other work. In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the word “god” is used just 13 times and the word heaven gets 72 appearances. Boito’s far less verbose text manages to fit in “Dio” 38 times and “Ciel” another 46 times. For more context, the play is close to 28,000 words in length while the opera libretto has under 19,000 words.
Religion As Structure
“Otello,” the work opens on an earth-shattering choral prayer to the heavens, Otello’s protection the major request to the diety. The opera also ends on a prayer from Desdemona moments before she is set to die, this time praying for her soul and that of others, her husband included. This bookend structure serves to emphasize the piousness of the characters, but also expresses the overall conflict as the battle for Otello’s soul.
At the outset of the opera he is fighting external forces of nature that he ultimately handles and overcomes with, as he proclaims in the “Esultate,” the help of the heavens. But as Desdemona’s plight has us see, Otello is unable to conquer his inner demons and actually denies God in this very battle.
This shift comes in the second and third act, also framed by monologues with God. The first is Iago’s famous Credo, which is nowhere in the original play. An original Boito creation, the Credo is a blasphemous series of recitations from the villain, his intentions at doing harm repeated time and again. He sees the world as nothing and proclaims himself God’s adversary.
In the same way as the choral prayer from Act 1 matches up with Desdemona’s own “Ave Maria” in Act 4, Iago’s “Credo” finds a structural rhyme in Otello’s “Dio Mi Potevi” from Act 3. Here Otello questions God openly, wondering why he makes him suffer so much. At the end of the aria, Otello embraces Iago’s declamatory vocal style as he blasphemes against God, his voice rising over punctuated chords that echo the opening of the “Credo.”
Otello’s Point of No Return
The end of Act 2 represents the opera’s structural and dramatic midpoint or “Point of No Return”, with Otello finally accepting Desdemona’s infidelity and preparing to act on it. The famous “Si pel ciel” duet still has Otello calling on God as his ally, his resolve, in his mind, just. But while Otello’s vocal line is melodic and heroic, Iago’s utterance in that duet is dissonant and harsh, foreshadowing Otello’s own shift in the next act from faithful to God to outright lambasting him.
This development highlights something often overlooked in Otello himself – that he is an apostate and this transformation was inevitable. While the opera does not make much about his background (in fact racism is not a prominent theme in the opera), the fact that he is a moor would point toward his being a Muslim in earlier years. That he has turned into a Christian general murdering other Muslims enforces the notion that he has abandoned his previous religious association out of convenience and is quick to do so yet again when things fail to go his way. A man like that cannot be saved, which Otello acknowledges with his suicide at the end of the opera.