Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Exploiting Agony

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Exploiting Agony

Article excerpt

Otello Royal Opera House, in rep until 24 July Verdi's art reaches its summit in Otello, and in doing so reveals both his greatness and a paradox that seems inseparable from it. The plot is harrowing, more so than any of his other operas, and Verdi exploits its agonising capacities to the full. The glorious love duet which concludes Act I is something to make the most of, for that is the end of happiness, as the act's final bars suggest.

From then on it is a series of dreadful scenes in which the chief characters, deliberately or not, create as much suffering as possible - suffering which, at least at crucial points, the audience is bound to share in a satisfactory performance. Yet Verdi never forgets that he is writing for an audience which is primarily interested, as the Italians have been for the past 300 years, in performance rather than in drama, or anyway any drama except the battle between the performers and the audience; and he caters with a generosity unique even for him with a drinking song, a villain's enthusiastic expression of his nihilism, a tormented monologue for the hero, a long sweet song for the heroine, and a rousing duet of vengeance for the hero and villain. The latter, which concludes Act II, is meant to be terrifying in the hysteria of Otello and the viciousness of Iago, but in the theatre, if adequately performed, it brings the house down and elicits cheers, gratified bows from the performers, and an exhilaration which is utterly alien to the progression of the drama. Verdi can't have written it involuntarily, especially in view of the excruciatingly dissonant chords which bring down the curtain, so the question is raised of how serious this art is.

A question that seems to be banished by Act III, the most painful, with the duet, alternating exquisite beauty and shocking brutality, in which Otello accuses Desdemona of being a whore; the marvellously malicious scherzando section in which Otello drives himself still madder by imagining what Cassio and Iago are joking about; and the immense climax, in which, before the assembled company, Otello furiously pushes Desdemona and sings 'A terra! e piangi!'

(To the ground! And weep! ), followed by the obligatory vast ensemble of horror and revulsion. Act IV is strange. Up to that point the drama has whipped along at a furious pace, a continuous succession of what would be highlights if there were any lowlights, but now it slows to Desdemona's 'Willow Song' and 'Ave Maria', lovely music which does nothing to characterise her or to forward the action. …

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