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Otello (Rossini)

Gioachino Rossini 1792–1868

Dramma per musica in 3 acts
Libretto by Francesco Maria Berio based on William Shakespeare
First performed December 4 1816. Teatro del Fondo, Naples

first seen September 8 2019

Sung in Italian with German & English surtitles
Introductory talks (in German) in the Holzfoyer 30 minutes before performances begin

Otello, a foreigner from Arabia, has been very successful in Venice's service. The people, Doge and dignitaries welcome him back with laud and honour, but his remarkable achievements arouse jealousy too: some hate the outsider and begrudge his success, including wealthy Elmiro, Rodrigo, the Doge's son, and Jago. When the grateful Doge asks Otello to name his reward, he asks to be granted Venetian citizenship, to acknowledge his deep sense of belonging. The Doge grants his wish. Otello's enemies are outraged and start thinking about how to get rid of him. Citizenship is only one of Otello's ambitions: he is secretly married to Elmiro's daughter Desdemona; if their union were accepted and made official, life would be perfect. But Elmiro – for political reasons – wants his daughter to marry Rodrigo. His suspicions were aroused recently when he noticed how friendly Otello and his daughter were. Desdemona has had trouble trying to keep her relationship with Otello secret. A letter containing a lock of her hair, intended for Otello, was taken from her by her father. She said it was for Rodrigo, to cover up. Desdemona's now frightened that Otello might hear about this and think her unfaithful. She shares her worries with her younger sister Emilia, who tries to reassure her. Desdemona's fears were justified, her father, out of the blue, intends to marry her to Rodrigo – she hesitates to pledge her troth. When Otello appears and sees Desdemona and Rodrigo together, he thinks she's betrayed his love and reveals their secret union, which Desdemona confirms. Rodrigo feels affronted and swears revenge. Elmiro curses his daughter and snatches her from Otello. ACT 2 Rodrigo, unable to accept Desdemona's rejection of him, tries to win her round, but she turns him down again and admits how close she really is to Otello: she's his wife. Rodrigo feels betrayed and justified in his desire for revenge. Otello, desperate and confused, meets Jago, who he believes to be a friend. Jago cunningly fans the flames of Otello's jealousy. He managed to get hold of the letter with the lock of hair, which he hands to Otello as proof of Desdemona's affair with Rodrigo. Otello's fury makes him determined to kill Desdemona and then himself. When the supposed adversaries Rodrigo and Otello come face to face, a fierce argument breaks out. They are so intent on taking revenge that when Desdemona arrives she finds it impossible engage them in a conversation to clarify matters. Desdemona's father continues to despise and humiliate her. ACT 3 Desdemona thinks all is lost, because Otello's being sent into exile and doesn't believe in her love any more. When she hears Dante's words »Nothing's as painful as memories of happiness, when one is in despair« from the section about Francesca da Rimini in The Divine Comedy, she abandons herself to grief. Remembering her friend Isaura, who was utterly destroyed by her love for an unfaithful man, she sings her favourite song, the song of the willow. A thunderstorm's brewing. Desdemona prays before going to sleep. Jago plants a weapon in her room and helps Otello gain entry, to carry out his revenge. But Otello hesitates and can't bring himself to kill her. When she wakes up he refuses to believe her protestations of innocence, getting angrier and angrier, the argument escalates. No sooner is Desdemona dead then Jago's intrigue is exposed, the traitor is dead and Otello's reputation and rank could be restored. Otello chooses to join Desdemona in death.

At the height of his career Rossini turned to the story of Otello, which few people associate with him because Shakespeare and Verdi spring more readily to mind. Rossini’s version is very much his own, concentrating on the conflict between Desdemona and her father instead of the title hero’s jealousy. Director Damiano Michieletto seized on this shift in focus and interpreted Rossini’s opera as a drama about fear of the unknown. His protagonist is an Arab, a member of a nouveau riche Gulf state, who the west flirted with, but then despised. Otello is initially accepted into the upper echelons in Venice and made to feel welcome as long as he contributes to the economic boom. The moment he tries to become part of the family, he's ostracised. Michieletto presents an analysis of society, not a drama about jealousy, drawing fascinating character portraits, constantly flitting between what's happening on stage and what the protagonists are thinking.