Othello and Otello – music and evil

Tom Sutcliffe on the genius of Verdi

The striking poster for my son Walter’s production of Otello at the Teatro Regio, Turin, showed three black chess pieces standing on a chess board, a king, a queen and a pawn. I had never thought about Otello as a kind of chessboard experience, but actually it is indeed a game of manipulation. The mystery of course is why. Iago’s explanations of what went on (given in advance) are about as convincing in hindsight as those of Oscar Pistorius. But because Shakespeare does not tell us enough to satisfy our curiosity our imaginations run riot.


The secret is not Otello’s jealousy but Iago’s: a jealousy of a better but terribly different human being, a sexual jealousy no doubt, a resentment of the outsider who has somehow got in: the play really is about race, about the presumed inferior alien who has been revealed as devastatingly better. Iago’s hatred is terrible above all because it is the manifestation of such an ordinary human viciousness – an evil that we all in a way are party to. Shakespeare makes us want to be able to say: it’s not us, what Iago does. We are the innocent, the ones with virtue. But, as laid out, seeing this story, we know we cannot convince ourselves of that.

Most operas are about two males and a female, the soprano in love with the tenor, the baritone with other plans for her. In that sense this Othello story is perfectly normal. But in the hands of genius domestic reality becomes epic. Enjoying two casts in Turin dress rehearsals and first nights made for an intense Otello experience for me and my wife. But it is 50 years now that this tale has been playing in my mind. I first saw the Verdi in August 1962 (my last long vacation from Oxford) in the courtyard of the doge’s palace in Venice with Tito Gobbi as Iago, Dimiter Usunov as Otello. My first Covent Garden Otello in February 1969 was James McCracken, with Yorkshire’s great Peter Glossop as Iago, and Gwyneth Jones as an incredibly ravishing Desdemona who never later sounded sweeter.

In Turin the cast was led by the American tenor Gregory Kunde (the only tenor who sings both the Verdi and Rossini’s very different Otello – and he will be at Covent Garden next season); Italy’s most successful Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri, was his huge Iago. The other cast was also thrilling – Francesco Anile’s sheer animal Otello, and Roberto Frontali’s intense implacable Iago. Verdi puts such vulnerability in the characters of Otello, Desdemona, Cassio, music perfectly geared to humanize and realize longings, bewilderment, innocence, that the danger posed by Iago’s clear vision of his own total human moral autonomy becomes sheer terror.

Ambitious and imposing

Two years after my first operatic Otello, I slept in the queue outside the Chichester Festival Theatre on 3 August 1964 to get tickets for Laurence Olivier’s Othello – the big draw in the National Theatre’s Chichester season that year (Olivier having launched his NT directorship with the company he created at Chichester during the previous two opening Festival Theatre seasons). I had read but not seen the play before. Olivier’s approach has been argued about endlessly. It was of course a magnetic substantial interpretation, imbued with ambition and a certain self-love, imposing, large and grand and slightly absurd. This was a very well-made John Dexter production designed by Jocelyn Herbert. The cast was incredibly strong with Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Frank Finlay the most memorable figure of all as Iago – arch manipulator who did it all seemingly without anything happening. The wounding during Dexter’s typical riot impressed me immensely, it seemed so real. But so was every single touch or smile or shared confidence in Finlay’s subtle light performance.

Of course the play is truly wonderful argument – extended multi-dimensional layered verbal account acted through an extended process in time and in different locations. It provides the invisible foundation for the operatic masterpiece crafted by Verdi and his supreme librettist Boito. Verdi in music and in song to be sung registers the feelings that underlie the words with which Shakespeare fleshed the tale. Boito gives just as much structure as Verdi’s music needs to bring the humanity alive to exactly the degree needed for the narrative to function – no more and no less. Shakespeare’s Iago turns Trappist: ‘Demand me nothing, what you know, you know, From this time forth I never will speak word.’

Unstoppable tragedy

In the opera there is no need to explain his silence as the music has already said it all: the offence implicit for Iago (though he is not there, we are) of the blossoming love of Otello and Desdemona at the end of act 1, like a warm embracing wind; then Iago’s manipulation of Otello is so economical and exact in Boito’s text; the engine of unstoppable tragedy driven by Verdi fixes our sensitivity and response to the victims. In Shakespeare we deduce Iago’s objective fascinating wickedness. In Verdi we feel it in our bones and hearts. Music works in the memory not as argument, but as a tapestry of emotion and response.

What a mystery music is, to be so life-enhancing and moving that it says what words cannot express. Verdi in music explains the cussed immovability of evil in Iago’s unfettered jealousy. ND