Music

How Verdi Improved On Shakespeare

NPR | Oct. 9, 2013 12:22 p.m.

Contributed By:

Arun Rath

Johan Botha as the title character and Renée Fleming as Desdemona in the Metropolitan Opera's fall 2012 run of Verdi's Otello.

Johan Botha as the title character and Renée Fleming as Desdemona in the Metropolitan Opera's fall 2012 run of Verdi's Otello.

Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard

This past week may have been a rough one for the classical world, but there is something to look forward to.

This coming week, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, composer of the best opera of all time. (That’s right, Wagner fans. Start writing those letters.)

I’m talking about Verdi’s spectacular rendering of Othello, the Moor of Venice. A Shakespearean tragedy helps to class up a genre that tends to run toward the sordid. And, dare I say it, Verdi made a few improvements on Shakespeare’s original.

We all remember Iago, the slimy schemer who dupes Othello into thinking that Desdemona is having an affair. In the play, I’m always left wondering, “Why is this scumbag so evil?”

Verdi gives Iago an aria, Credo in un Dio crudel, to explain himself: “I am evil because I am a man, because I have that primeval slime in me,” he sings.

Iago believes in a nasty world of nature, survival of the cruelest, and that morality and heaven are a joke: The dark side of the post-Darwin world that was scary to Verdi’s generation.

On the other end of the moral scale, there’s Desdemona. For me, she’s one of Shakespeare’s more problematic characters: She can turn into little more than Iago’s tool and Othello’s punching bag.

But Verdi’s Desdemona opens her soul — as in her Ave Maria that it’s almost impossible to believe was composed by an atheist.

And then there’s Othello himself, his inner torment always on full musical display. Otello has everything — racial politics, gender politics, politics politics, all there to be picked apart any way you like. It’s timeless.

And, most importantly: It’s got those glorious Verdi choruses that make you feel like setting off confetti cannons.

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