Critical evaluation of the opera
In Otello, the flow between the set pieces is much smoother than in any of Verdi's earlier works. Whereas in his earlier masterpieces he had made significant strides away from the aria-recitative structure, here Verdi did away with it entirely. Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, was extremely faithful to Shakespeare's original play, though act 1 of the drama was omitted and the other scenes were condensed in length. The roles of Otello (Othello) and Iago are among the most fully developed in all of opera, as much so as in Shakespeare's original drama—especially the character of Otello himself. (Iago is much more a standard villain in the opera than in the play). Verdi's orchestral writing in Otello is more highly developed than in any of Verdi's previous masterpieces. Though the orchestra plays a significant role in his earlier works, never before had Verdi, or Italian opera in general, been so daring and complex in orchestration. Throughout the score instances of dissonance appear, and Otello's entrance is marked by a cluster chord made of C–C♯–D. It has been argued that Otello was influenced by Richard Wagner's work, whereas others believe it was pitted directly against it.
The storm which dominates the opening chorus is portrayed vividly by the orchestra. Rapidly changing sixteenth notes played by the lower strings and woodwinds create an image of a turbulent sea while rising and descending scales in the upper woodwinds represent the unpredictable patterns of the wind in the tempest. Frequent interjections from the brass and percussion portray the bolts of lightning and thunder which accompany the storm. Otello's first entrance is marked by brass instruments for a sense of grandeur. Verdi adds to the anxiety by having the organ hold its three lowest notes in a cluster (C–C♯–D) through the entire scene. At the end, the woodwinds gradually calm down to portray the fading of the storm, and finally the release of the low organ discord completes the feeling of relief. When the chorus sings of their joy, the high woodwinds now portray the sparkling, cheerful flames.
In the drinking song that follows, Verdi makes use of the bassoons and other low instruments in order to represent the internal effects of alcohol upon Cassio. However, this is gradually eclipsed by the merry themes which follow in the orchestra and chorus ("Chi all'esca ha morso"). The merriment of the celebrations suddenly become frantic, as Cassio challenges Montano to a duel. The full orchestra builds up to a climax as they fight whilst Iago orders Roderigo to go and alert the entire town until the ordeal is interrupted by a loud statement made by the entering Otello.
Accented notes in the orchestra, particularly in the strings, reflect the annoyance of Otello at having his sleep disturbed. Notes played piano and pizzicato by the strings accompany Iago's account of the events, giving his account a feeling of false remorse and unhappiness. Upon Otello's orders, the disturbed islanders return to their homes, accompanied by legato notes in the upper strings and woodwinds depicting the calm that has once more been reestablished.
The great love duet which ends the act commences with a statement from Otello accompanied by cellos playing pianissimo. Desdemona's reply to him is accompanied by the violins and violas, providing a contrast to the statements made by Otello previously. When the duet proper starts ("Quando narravi"), sixteenth notes played by the harp and quarter notes played by the horns and bassoons give the music a sense of motion as Desdemona describes the narrations that Otello had given her about his life. As Otello commences to speak about how he narrated the battles in which he fought, thirty-second notes in the strings in addition to the inclusion of the lower brass instruments reflect the violent topics of Otello's previous narration. However, upon Desdemona's next vocal entrance several bars later, this immense energy is translated to an overall sense of the passion of the two lover's love for each other through the use of some of the more expressive wind instruments such as the English Horn. The duet continues to build up in passion until its climax, the appearance of the "kiss" theme which reappears twice more in the Opera near the end. After this, the music begins to tone down until the act ends with a trill in two of the first violins and a plucked chord on the harp.
The act commences with a series of dark threatening statements from the bassoons and cellos followed by repeats of these in the clarinets and violas. Quickly, a theme forms that appears to reflect the calm that has remained in the castle after the brawl the night before. However, this tone is only superficial; repeated descending chromatic scales in the strings during the brief orchestral prelude create a darker atmosphere associated with the plotting of Iago.
Iago's brief conversation with Cassio is marked by the theme from the act's introduction, making Iago appear strangely affable when he suggests that Cassio consult Desdemona; however, as before, an underlying dark tone remains.
Upon Cassio's exit, this dark tone rapidly becomes predominant as the gestures which opened the act repeat, but this time, will a full string and woodwind section. The famous aria that follows ("Credo in un Dio crudel") is marked by trills in the lowest clarinet register and quick yet powerfully accented notes played by the full orchestra at several intervals that portray the evil of Iago to its fullest extent.
Nevertheless, Iago's evil reverie is interrupted by the appearance of Desdemona and Cassio. The urgency felt by Iago in the situation is reflected in the staccato eight notes in the strings which accompany his witnessing of the situation. However, upon Otello's entry the music suddenly becomes much calmer. Otello's response to Iago's question about the preexisting relationship between Cassio and Desdemona is a typical love melody which would have been standard in an earlier Verdi opera, yet it lacks the passion that would typically accompany it and is cut short by Iago's interjection. Otello's annoyance with Iago for not directly stating his "suspicions" is suddenly reflected by an outburst in the orchestra. This is the second instance in the opera in which Otello's potential anger has been made apparent. As Iago gives the equivalent of the famous Shakespearean line from the play ("È un'idra fosca"), the low strings and woodwinds create a dark tone during this scene.
This darkness, however is interrupted by the appearance of a chorus. The chorus is accompanied by folk instruments such as the mandolin and guitar in order to give the music a more authentic feel. However, the music is slow and intentionally sweet in quality, reflecting the kind innocence of Desdemona.
The quartet that follows the episode begins with a similarly sweet statement by Desdemona, asking for Otello to forgive her if she has done anything. This is overshadowed by the aside brooding of Otello about his perception of her guilt, which is marked by shorter, more separated phrases in the strings. Meanwhile, as Iago and Emilia join into the music with their quarrel, the music darkens until it is strangely sad towards the end, even when the orchestral accompaniment ends. After the end of the quartet proper, the music once again regains its sweet nature, as Desdemona's farewell statements are accompanied by the violins and oboe, however soon after her departure, it rapidly darkens, Otello broods to the incessant notes of the bassoons and lower violin statements. However, this is immediately transferred into an anger towards Iago which is reflected in the accented statements made by the full orchestra. Otello's distress is reflected by his farewell to fame and glory ("Ora e per sempre addio"). Repeated lower chords on the harp along with triplet movement in the lower strings give the portion a dark tone, despite the majestic interludes of the brass and the melody (which would, on its own, be cheerful).
During Iago's untruthful account of Cassio's dream, strings and high woodwind instruments are used in order to create a dream-like atmosphere in the music. Descending chromatic scales both add to this atmosphere and maintain the dark overall tone which has pervaded.
The act ends with an energetic finale in which Iago and Otello swear to have vengeance. The energy of this final duet is provided by the full orchestra, which accompanies it.
The brief prelude to the third act uses the theme which had accompanied Iago's warning to Otello about jealousy in the second act. It begin with the lower strings, immediately creating the dark theme that will be present throughout the act, even if in a hidden subsurface manner. The prelude gradually builds up until its climax with the entire orchestra.
Desdemona's appearance in the act is once again accompanied by a sweet melody, however, this is quickly subdued as Otello, in his frustration, calls her a "vil cortigiana" at which point the anger of Otello is once again portrayed by a full orchestra with brass. The music that accompanies Desdemona's reaction to this sudden outburst is sad, yet the woodwinds give it an oddly noble character, which again reaffirms her overall innocence.
After Desdemona's departure, Iago stages an interrogation of Cassio in front of Otello. This interrogation takes the form of a friendly conversation and is accompanied by jocular sixteenth note runs in the woodwinds, reflecting the joy of Cassio about his love interest with the woman Bianca. This happily playful tone is contrasted with the dark asides of the watching Otello. Throughout this scene, the dark tone pervades.
The full scene that follows is grand in the orchestration, with abundant use of brass throughout. However, following Otello's angry outbursts near the end, it quickly becomes dark and sad after Otello strikes Desdemona.
After the departure of all of the members of the scene, the turmoil within Otello's mind is reflected by the restlessness of the orchestra, which becomes increasingly violent as he falls into his trance. The dark singing of the triumphant Iago is contrasted with the majestic brass and external choral interjections praising Otello..
The act begins with a brief prelude of woodwind instruments, particularly the English horn and oboe, which bring a sad and mourning atmosphere to the act, reflecting the sentiments which manifest themselves in Desdemona. All the while, clarinets playing in the lowest register on repeating chords create a sense of impending doom. The theme upon which this prelude is built is that of the later "Willow Song".
In the brief recitativo between Desdemona and Emilia which begins the act, the despairing tone begun in the introduction continues.
The "Willow Song" ("Mia madre aveva una povera ancella") which follows is marked by an increasing orchestral sound, with woodwinds and strings adding to it, yet what compounds the sadness of the piece is the wail-like cries of "Salce" made by Desdemona followed by similarly despairing, yet softer "echoes" played by the English horn. Near the end of the song, Desdemona's fear, which has been hidden up to this point by a veil of sadness, is made apparent; she mistakes the noise of the wind for that of an intruder. The orchestra immediately builds to a fortissimo, reflecting the genuine worries possessed by Desdemona. The music that gradually lessens with the comforting of Emilia and returns for a final repetition of the theme of the "Willow Song".
Afterwards, Desdemona begins to bid Emilia adieu. This goodbye is initially accompanied by repeated notes on the lower woodwinds and strings such as those in the introduction of the act but in a much more noticeable and dominating manner. This reflects the increasing expectation of Desdemona of her death. Initially, she attempts to keep these feelings to herself, but the orchestra reveals her increasing inner thoughts. These feelings finally reach a point at which they can no longer be contained and Desdemona lets out a loud passionate cry of goodbye to Emilia, one that is reinforced by the full orchestral accompaniment.
Following Emilia's departure, Desdemona prays. Like many of Desdemona's earlier vocal appearances in the opera, these prayers contain a sweet nature, reflecting, for the final time, the innocence of the wrongly accused woman. The melody within the strings that appears later in the prayer scene adds significantly to the poignancy of the situation.
After she goes to bed, a sinister theme appears in the string bass, depicting Otello's entrance. This effectively replaces the sad tone which was present throughout the first portions with the dark one which marked much of the second and third acts. The low theme begins very slowly, but gradually accelerates until there is a sudden outburst with the full orchestra. However, soon afterwards, the music drops down to a soft tremolo in the strings. Above this, a theme that evokes Otello's longing for Desdemona appears in the English horn and bassoons. This theme builds up until it finally gives way to the "kiss" theme from act 1, as Otello embraces the sleeping Desdemona. However this second appearance of the theme is even more passionate than the first one and adds to the poignancy of the tragedy.
Once Desdemona awakens, the music retreats to the theme that accompanied Otello's entrance, but with a more threatening feel this time as brass instruments are added. As Otello demands that Desdemona confess, the music accelerates, reaching a climax at the point where Desdemona is strangled. After this, though the power of the orchestra lessens, it maintains its darkness throughout the scene of Emilia's discovery of the murder and Desdemona's final death.
The scene with that follows is marked by a theme that is somewhat majestic and proud, however, as it is limited to the woodwinds, it seems weak. This reflects the loss of power and honor that have faced Otello.
As Otello laments his actions to the theme of his longing, he decides to commit suicide. Just before he dies, the orchestra plays the "kiss" motif one final time before the opera ends.