Opera Profile: Rossini’s Radically Different ‘Otello’

By David Salazar

When he was to name what would be his great dramatic masterpiece “Otello,” Verdi struggled with the name. He was afraid not of his work being compared to Shakespeare’s immortal play but of having to suffer the consequences of doing battle with Rossini’s original opera on the subject.

The master of Pesaro, an idol for the young Verdi, had created his own version of the moor’s tragic tale which premiered on Dec. 4, 1816. The opera held the stage from the outset and was THE “Otello” of its time.

That it was largely forgotten for a lengthy period during the 20th century owes less to its lack of quality and more to the fact that Verdi’s own version was one of the greatest operas ever written.

Short Plot Summary

This version of the opera is quite a departure from the Shakespeare play. In this version, Iago and Rodrigo are both in love with Desdemona, who rejects their advances. Iago out of vengeance plants the seed of doubt in Otello, ultimately leading to his murdering his own wife. During Rossini’s time, it was normal to include a happy ending wherein the couple reconciled.

Worthy of note is that Rodrigo is actually a more pivotal role in the opera than he is in either Shakespeare or even Verdi’s interpretation while Cassio is non-existent. Racism is more prevalent in Rossini’s version than in Verdi’s and Desdemona’s betrayal of her father is played up more extensively, making her, to a certain extent, a richer character than Verdi’s.

Famous Musical Passages

The opera isn’t quite as iconic as many of Rossini’s other operas, but there is one musical number that has lived on throughout the years – the tenor duet “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangre.” The duet confronts Otello and Rodrigo in a duel of vocal fireworks. Here is one of the finest performances of this duet in recent history:

Also notable is the willow song at the end of the opera, an inspiration for Verdi’s own version.

Watch and Listen

But one duet does not make an opera and in this case, Rossini makes quite a case for himself with a solid interpretation of Verdi’s work. Here is a performance from 1988 featuring Chris Merritt and June Anderson. Some might protest the use of black mask, but the musical interpretation is transcendent.


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