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A Shakespeare Rarity: Verdi's 'Otello'

Verdi wrote his masterpiece Otello when he was in his mid 70's, around the same time this picture was taken. (Getty Images)

At 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 Elgar, 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.

At the end of the first act, Otello and Desdemona (Johan Botha and Nuccia Focile) remember how they first met, in the sensuous duet "Gia nella notte densa" — "Now in the dark night."

Shakespeare to the Rescue

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 based on Shakespeare, and many consider them two of the finest operas ever composed.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a performance of Otello from Cologne's Philharmonie. The stars are tenor Johan Botha in the title role, soprano Nuccia Focile as Desdemona and baritone Carlo Guelfi as Iago, one of opera's darkest and most complex villains.

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