5 February 2023

Premiere of Verdi’s Otello

Composer’s penultimate opera prompted 20 curtain calls

The original poster advertising the debut of Verdi's Otello
The original poster advertising
the debut of Verdi's Otello
Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello, the penultimate work of his outstanding career, was staged for the first time at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala theatre on this day in 1887.

The four-act opera, based on the play Othello by William Shakespeare, came into being only after a long campaign by Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and the librettist Arrigo Boito, to persuade Italy’s greatest opera composer to come out of his unofficial retirement.

Verdi effectively called time on his writing career after the success of Aida in 1871. It was his 28th opera and his success had enabled him to become a wealthy landowner. Although his Requiem was to come in 1874, he was reluctant to commit himself to any new works.

It took Ricordi and Boito eight years from first suggesting to Verdi that he wrote an opera based on Othello to it actually coming to fruition.

The composer had been a lifelong admirer of Shakespeare’s work, which he had read and re-read since he was a young man. He had written an opera based on Macbeth which was first performed in Florence in 1847.

The idea was first put to him at a dinner at Verdi’s Milan residence in 1879, attended by Ricordi and Boito. Verdi was sceptical but respected Boito, with whom he had worked previously on a revision of Simon Boccanegra, and was interested enough when Boito began working on a libretto for Otello to ask that he be sent a copy.

The composer remained reluctant to commit himself but Ricordi learned from Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina, that Verdi had been impressed with Boito’s work and in 1884 - by then in his 70s - he began work on composing a score.

Verdi was already in his 70s when he
began to write the music for Otello
The creative process survived one difficult moment, after Boito had been misquoted in an interview as saying he wanted to write the music as well as the libretto for Otello, as he had with his own opera, Mefistofele. Thankfully, Boito was able to convince an unsettled Verdi that this was never his intention.

Verdi finally finished the score for Otello in the autumn of 1886, announcing its completion with a laconic letter to Boito that read simply: "DEAR BOITO, It is finished! All honour to us! (and to Him!!). Farewell. G. VERDI".

By now, the wider public and the opera community had become aware that Verdi was working on a new opera, 15 years after Aida, and singers, conductors and opera-house managers across Europe were making known their interest in being part of the project.

Yet it had already been decided that La Scala would be the venue and that Franco Faccio, the theatre’s musical director and the conductor of many Verdi operas in Italy and elsewhere, would have the baton.  The production was to be part of La Scala’s Carnival and Lent season.

In the end, the principal singers chosen were Francesco Tamagno, Italy's foremost dramatic tenor, to sing Otello, the French singing-actor Victor Maurel to take the baritone role of Iago, and Romilda Pantaleoni, a talented soprano renowned for her acting skills, to sing the part of Desdemona.

Even at this late stage, Verdi reserved the right to pull the plug if rehearsals were not to his liking. Happily, he was satisfied with what he saw and Otello’s first night could hardly have gone better. The audience at La Scala, never slow to express their displeasure if a performance falls below the standards they had come to expect, were so enthused that their applause at the conclusion went on so long that the cast answered no fewer than 20 curtain calls.

Otello went on to be performed at all the leading opera houses in Europe and America. Its success persuaded Verdi to enter into one more collaboration with Falstaff in 1893, also based on Shakespeare’s work.

Milan's Teatro all Scala is possibly the best known opera house in the world
Milan's Teatro all Scala is possibly the best
known opera house in the world
Travel tip:

Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, the ballet and opera house of world renown, was founded after a fire in 1776 destroyed the Teatro Regio Ducale, which until then had been the home of opera in Milan. The cost of the new theatre, built on the former location of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala to a design by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducale, in exchange for possession of the land and for renewed ownership of their boxes. The theatre, inaugurated on August 3, 1778 with a production of Antonio Salieri's opera L'Europa riconosciuta, was originally known as the Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala, which was in time shortened to Teatro alla Scala and ultimately to La Scala, by which it is usually known today. 

The Casa di Riposa per Musicisti was created thanks to the philanthropy of Giuseppe Verdi
The Casa di Riposa per Musicisti was created
thanks to the philanthropy of Giuseppe Verdi
Travel tip:

Verdi left his mark in Milan with more than just his music. Among a number of philanthropic acts by the composer, his Casa di Riposo per Musicisti - literally ‘rest home for musicians’ - is one of the more extraordinary. Still operating as a retirement home for musicians today, it can be found in Piazza Michelangelo Buonarroti, in the west of the city in a palazzo built along neo-Gothic lines by the architect Camillo Boito, brother of Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito. Conceived in 1889, it was completed 10 years later. Both Verdi and his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, are buried in a small mausoleum within the grounds. The home did not open for residents until after Verdi’s death in 1901, by which time he had already made provision in his will for the home - which he described as ‘to shelter elderly singers who have not been favoured by fortune, or who when they were young did not have the virtue of saving their money’ - to be funded out of future royalties from his operas.

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