How Verdi Celebrates & Renovates Bel Canto Traditions in ‘Otello’

By David Salazar

Verdi’s “Otello” is one of the world’s greatest operas. For many, it is THE Italian opera.

Premiering on Feb. 5, 1887, the penultimate opera in Verdi’s legacy is a work that is also the conjugation of all the styles that he had been playing with for decades. While many would look to “Falstaff” as a subversion of everything that had made up Italian opera for nearly a century, “Otello” is a celebration of those elements, often to the point of moving away from his own stylistic progression in other operas. Here is a breakdown of some of those major structural pieces and “clichés” of bel canto opera that Verdi reinstates in his final tragedy.

Entrance Chorus

If we look back at bel canto tradition, operas generally kicked off with an entrance chorus meant to establish setting. We see this in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “I Puritani,” and a number of Verdi operas, particularly from his early period. Verdi moved away from this tradition in some of his middle period works, including “Rigoletto,” “La Forza del Destino,” “Simon Boccanegra,” and even “Aida.” A later revision of “Don Carlo” also excises the chorus from the opening.

And while the chorus does not formally open “Otello,” the entire opening storm builds and climaxes to the thunderous proclamation of “Dio, fulgor de la bufera!” before eventually making way for Otello’s great entrance.

Drinking Song

Drinking songs are a major part of all opera and can be seen throughout opera in general, but Verdi, in particular, has some of the finest examples in all of opera. From “Macbeth” to “La Traviata,” we see examples of drinking songs in Verdi. The composer pays tribute to that tradition with Iago’s own version, the orchestration of each stanza placing greater emphasis on Cassio’s increased inebriation.

Cabaletta Finale in Act Two

One of the major aspects of Verdi’s evolution as a composer was to slowly but surely eliminate the cabaletta from his musical structures. The second of the double number structure that was the bread and butter of bel canto arias and duets/ensembles was slowly disposed of by Verdi or altered rather blatantly to incorporate dramatic necessities. There is a brief cabaletta at the end of Aida and Radmès’ duet in Act three, but it is nowhere to be found elsewhere in the opera. Don Carlo includes a hint of it in Eboli’s aria, but it is otherwise gone.

But it returns with a vengeance in “Otello” to kick off the end of the second act. What’s more, he incorporates the full structure of the cabaletta with a repetition for both voices, something he hadn’t done in operas for quite some time.

Pezzo Concertato

Verdi kept this traditional structure throughout his career and even utilized in Falstaff, but he experiments tremendously with it in “Otello.” While Desdemona launches the traditional structure with an extended solo passage and then incorporates an ensemble behind her, the composer also incorporates other text that goes against the grain of the general ensemble and keeps the movement of the drama propulsive. It is a subtle touch but an effective one and an example of how Verdi saw that he could take ever-present operatic structure and mold them to his needs.

Mad Scene & Double Aria

As noted, Verdi essentially did away with the double aria later in his career or combined them into one complete structure. But in the final act of “Otello,” he returns to it while also incorporating a “Mad Scene” of sorts. People mostly label Desdemona’s big moment as a mad scene because of one moment of emotional hallucination she experiences. Otello’s lamentations at the end of the preceding act fall more in line with someone going truly “mad.”

But the interesting perspective here is the double aria which is showcased in two separate seconds, the Willow Song and “Ave Maria.” No other character gets a double aria or extended solo but her and it is in keeping with the character’s vocal style being firmly enmeshed in the bel canto tradition.


On This DaySpecial Features