First Performance: 5 February 1887, Teatro alla Scala,
|Otello, a Moor, general of the Venetian army
|Iago, an ensign
|Cassio, a platoon leader
|Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman
|Lodovico, an ambassador of the Venetian Republic
|Montano, Otello’s predecessor as Governor of Cyprus
|Desdemona, Otello’s wife
|Emilia, Iago’s wife
Setting: A maritime city on the island of Cyprus, at the
end of the 15th century
Cyprus, near the harbor; an inn nearby, the castle in the background
It is night and a storm is raging. The people of the island are looking out
to sea, anxious for Otello’s ship. It arrives safely and he greets the crowd
with a shout of triumph: the storm which has spared him has completed the
destruction of the Turkish fleet begun by him. Frustrated in his love of
Desdemona, Roderigo is ready to drown himself, but Iago counsels him to be
sensible. He hates Otello for having appointed Cassio captain over his head and
will help Roderigo and have his own revenge at the same time.
As the islanders celebrate, Iago invites Cassio to drink the health of
Otello and Desdemona, knowing that he has no head for liquor. Prompted by Iago,
Roderigo begins a quarrel with the intoxicated Cassio, and when Montano tries
to stop them, Cassio attacks him. Iago urges Roderigo to rouse the town.
Otello interrupts the fight and, discovering that Montano is wounded and
angry because Desdemona’s sleep has been disturbed, demotes Cassio. He orders
Iago to calm the population. Otello and Desdemona, left alone, remember the
days of their courtship.
A hall in the castle with a garden in the background
Iago suggests to Cassio that he try to regain favor by asking Desdemona to
intercede for him and exults in his inborn capacity for evil. He watches as
Cassio approaches Desdemona and, noting the arrival of Otello, pretends to be
worried about Cassio’s manner, going on to suggest the possibility of a
relationship between him and Desdemona. He then warns Otello to beware of
jealousy and advises him to observe his wife. After groups of Cypriots have
sung a welcome to Desdemona she begins to plead for Cassio, but Otello puts her
off, complaining of a headache. When she tries to bind his forehead with a
handkerchief, he throws it to the ground, where it is picked up by Emilia.
Desdemona begs her husband to forgive her if she has unconsciously offended
him and he broods that she may have ceased to love him because of his color and
age. Iago snatches the handkerchief from Emilia, intending to leave it in
Otello orders Desdemona to leave and Iago continues to undermine Otello’s
faith in her. Lamenting that his peace of mind has gone, Otello demands proof
of her infidelity, so Iago claims to have overheard Cassio in his sleep
betraying his love for her. He also says that he has seen the handkerchief,
Otello’s first love-token to Desdemona, in Cassio’s hand. Otello vows vengeance
and Iago vows to dedicate himself to this cause.
Othello and Desdemona, by Alexandre-Marie Colin [Source: Wikipedia]
The great hall of the castle
A herald announces the arrival of a galley from Venice. Iago promises to
induce Cassio to betray his love for Desdemona in Otello’s hearing.
When Desdemona again tries to speak of Cassio, Otello asks her to bind his
forehead with the handkerchief. Becoming agitated when she is unable to produce
it, he warns her that its loss will bring misfortune and accuses her of
infidelity, driving her away, unmoved by her tears and protestations of
His grief at this affliction which has been sent to try him turns to rage as
Iago gets him to hide while he talks to Cassio — a cunningly contrived
conversation partly about Desdemona and partly about the courtesan Bianca, who
is madly in love with Cassio. Otello, unable to hear everything, misinterprets
Cassio’s amusement, particularly when Cassio produces the handkerchief,
expressing puzzlement as to how it appeared in his lodging, and he and Iago
As trumpets proclaim the arrival of the Venetian ship, Otello resolves to
kill Desdemona and Iago promises to take care of Cassio. Everyone gathers to
welcome the ambassador. As Otello reads the despatches brought by Lodovico, he
hears Desdemona express sympathy for Cassio and strikes her. He announces that
he has been recalled to Venice and Cassio appointed in his place. Lodovico
tries to make peace between him and Desdemona, but he throws her to the ground.
Furious at Cassio’s promotion, Iago incites Roderigo to murder him, as a means
of keeping Otello and Desdemona in Cyprus.
Otello orders everyone to leave, cursing Desdemona when she tries to
approach him. As he falls to the ground in a fit, Iago gloatingly places his
foot on him.
As Desdemona prepares for bed, assisted by Emilia, her heart is full of
foreboding and she remembers a girl called Barbara, who died of unrequited
love, singing “a song of willow.” Bidding Emilia good night, she prays, then
goes to bed.
Otello enters, wakes her with a kiss and tells her to pray for forgiveness
for any unabsolved sins. She begs for her life, denying his accusations of
infidelity with Cassio. He strangles her. Emila brings the news that Cassio has
killed Roderigo, but is unharmed. Hearing Desdemona’s dying protestations of
innocence, Emilia calls for help. She reveals the truth about the handkerchief
and Montano says that Roderigo had revealed what he knew of the plot before
dying. Iago flees, refusing to exculpate himself.
Lodovico takes Otello’s sword, but Otello draws a knife and kills himself,
kissing Desdemona as he dies.
[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]
image_description=Othello and Desdemona in Venice, by Theodore Chasseriau (1819-1856)
first_audio_name=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
product_by=Otello: Mario Del Monaco; Jago: Leonard Warren; Cassio: Giuseppe Zampieri; Roderigo: Luciano Della Pergola; Lodovico: Giorgio Tozzi; Montano: Enrico Campi: Un Araldo: Paolo Pedani; Desdemona: Renata Tebaldi; Emilia: Anna Maria Canali. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano. Antonino Votto, conducting. La Scala, Milano, 7 January 1954.