One-Upping the Bard: Verdi's 'Otello'

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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.

In the world of classical music alone, many composers have been successful with works inspired by Shakespeare. Tchaikovsky did it twice, with his famous Fantasy Overture, "Romeo and Juliet," and an orchestral fantasia after The Tempest. Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream may be the most famous work he ever composed, and both Dvorak and Richard Strauss wrote dramatic, Shakespeare-inspired tone poems.

Astoundingly, though, Verdi's Shakespeare operas are musical oddities. While hundreds of operas have been based on Shakespeare's works, only a few make regular appearances in today's theaters. 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.

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 rooted in Shakespeare, and they may just be the two finest Shakespeare-based operas ever composed.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Otello from the 2015 Peralada Castle Festival, on the Costa Brava in northeastern Spain. The distinguished cast includes soprano Eva Maria Westbroek as Desdemona, tenor Gregory Kunde in the title role, and baritone Carlos Álvarez as Iago. The conductor is Riccardo Frizza, with the orchestra of Barcelona's Grand Liceu Theater in the pit.