A great end makes for a great beginning.
Giuseppe Verdi ended his illustrious career with defining adaptations of Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it is Verdi’s 1887 Otello that provides a potent start to Houston Grand Opera’s 60th season at the Wortham Theater. Otello opens Friday night and runs through Nov. 7.
What does it take to make an Otello?
A brave and trusting general, an ambitious and conniving lieutenant, a wrathful if dashing young captain, and a gorgeous young bride. Just add a purloined handkerchief and the green-eyed monster of jealousy, and it’s like pouring kerosene on a camp fire before tossing in a grenade for good measure. Otello is not Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. But the intimate spectacle of a lover strangling his beloved in a fit of rage is more than haunting.
For many, Verdi’s final works provoke a conversation about what happens when a titan of the operatic stage tangles with the great genius of the Renaissance stage. Gary Wills’ recent Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater devotes its energies and erudition to just that theme.
Otello is not Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. But the intimate spectacle of a lover strangling his beloved in a fit of rage is more than haunting.
One striking difference is the extent to which Othello and Otello treat love across racial divides. Shakespeare’s Othello, subtitled The Moor of Venice, opens with the shock of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, who discovers that his daughter has eloped with a Moor. In Elizabethan parlance, this might have marked Othello as what we now call either African or Middle Eastern. In some of the ugliest lines in Shakespeare, Othello’s subordinate Iago, the play’s master manipulator, cries out:
Sir, you’re robbed. For shame, put on your gown!
Your heart is burst. You have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
Mixed-race love is akin to bestiality for Desdemona’s father. And yet not everyone seems to think so. The Duke of Venice, upon hearing of Desdemona and Othello’s courtship, says, “I think this tale would win my daughter, too.” Desdemona herself claims, “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” which some read as a declaration of indifference to differences of race and religion.
Verdi’s Otello, on the other hand, seems to see Otello’s visage in his mind and practice a kind of color blindness. The opening scenes of Shakespeare’s play are cut, as is the figure of Desdemona’s father. Otello is most cast without regard for race, and there is a long and not-so distant tradition of sending white singers out on the stage in blackface.
In a review of a 2013 Lyric Opera production of Otello, John von Rhein writes, “It's worth noting that, at [former HGO general director Anthony] Freud's behest, Botha eschewed the blackface makeup that remains a shameful part of "Otello" performance tradition in most opera houses, even though the spoken theater has long since banished its use in performances of the original Shakespeare "Othello."” Daniel York writes of similar concerns surrounding last spring’s English National Opera production, noting that “The E.N.O. have promised on their Twitter account that there will be ‘no blackface in our production.’ And yet Stuart Skelton is a ruggedly fair Caucasian.”
HGO’s production features as Otello New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neil who will also sing Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre. O’Neil stars opposite Ailyn Perez who makes her HGO debut as Desdemona.
Some things change, others remain when a work is translated from one kind of stage to another. Verdi, and the opera companies who have kept Otello alive, may not have been as interested in race as Shakespeare was. Verdi does, however, amplify Desdemona, offering her two exquisite moments early in act four. These relatively quiet moments come in the eye of the hurricane developing from Otello’s jealousy and rage.
Desdemona remembers a song from her childhood, a sad willow song, which Shakespeare pens:
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow.
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her and murmured her
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the
Here’s Barbara Frittoli signing Verdi’s amplified version:
But it is as if one exquisite aria wasn’t enough for Verdi. Desdemona, doomed to die, sings a powerful and pure “Ave Maria” as she prays before her husband’s fateful return here as rendered by Maria Callas:
How haunting and sweet Desdemona is just before her untimely end. Of course, in the world of opera, sweet beginnings rarely make for happy endings.