One-Upping the Bard: Verdi's 'Otello'

WOO-1302-Otello-300-2At first glance, it seems that Giuseppe Verdi's Shakespeare-based operas would have plenty of company in the world's theaters. After all, the influence of Shakespeare is widespread in just about every kind of entertainment imaginable.

There are Shakespeare-inspired rock tunes such as "Romeo and Juliet," by Dire Straits, and Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance." Symphonic works based on Shakespeare have been composed by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Dvorak, among others. His dramas have turned up in a wide range of movies, and there are even comic book editions of Shakespeare's plays.

Astoundingly, though, Verdi's Shakespeare operas are musical oddities. While hundreds of operas have been based on Shakespeare's works, only a few might be called opera house staples. Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet is one, along with Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The other obvious candidates are all by Verdi: Macbeth, Falstaff and Otello.

Verdi's career was not only amazingly successful, but also remarkably long. He lived from 1813 until 1901, and his operas spanned a period of nearly six decades. Still, there were bumps in the road. When Verdi was in his 60's, he seemed to lose enthusiasm. He wasn't thrilled with the music of his younger colleagues, and for more than 10 years he didn't write a single, new opera.

Then two old friends approached him -- publisher Giulio Ricordi and librettist Arrigo Boito. It had been almost forty years since Verdi composed Macbeth. The two suggested he might turn to Shakespeare again, with a setting of Othello.

Verdi took them up on it. Though he wrote only two more operas -- the profound tragedy Otello and the wistful comedy Falstaff -- both are rooted in Shakespeare, and they may just be the two finest Shakespeare-based operas ever composed.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Otello from one of the world's premiere destinations for opera tourists -- or any other tourists, for that matter! It comes to us from historic La Fenice in Venice, in a production featuring two American singers, tenor Gregory Kunde and soprano Leah Crocetto, as Otello and Desdemona, with baritone Lucio Gallo as the villain Iago.