Act One of the opera opens to a raging storm as the Cypriots are praying for God to deliver the ship and their General. Iago, Roderigo and Desdemona have already arrived in Cyprus. The ship is sighted as the storm builds in intensity. The ship's mainsail gives way and Iago, in an aside to Roderigo, declares, "May the sea be her tomb!" At that moment however, the ship is saved.
Otello enters and with a mighty shout of Victory, we get our first look at the hero. He appears, a majestic presence: upright, noble, proud, the mighty warrior who defeated the Turks and nature. Musically, he has the moment almost to himself. The Horns play chords with occasional interludes from the strings. The vocal range for Otello is from a high B natural (and the B is only a grace note that is some-times omitted) down to an F. It is a stirring passage which should leave us with a stunning first impression of Otello's greatness. Otello tells the awaiting crowd, "Rejoice! The Turks have been drowned at sea. We and heaven deserve the glory! We did our part and the storm finished him off." The Cypriots praise him, declaring, "Long Live Otello!"
Otello has no sooner left the stage, than Iago begins his plotting. He offers as the motive for his actions his resentment of Cassio. It seems Cassio was promoted over Iago to captain while Iago remains an ensign. But is there a deeper motivation? One of racism? When first talking to Roderigo, he refers to Otello as a Moor three times. The first reference is, "I hate that Moor." (Odio quel Moro). The second is when he talks of Otello's will that he remain his ensign, (ed io rimango di sua moresca signoria). The third is when Iago says that if he were the Moor, he would not wish an Iago around him (cosi è pur vero che se il Moro io fossi vedermi non vorrei d'attorno un Iago). This is the only place in the music that Verdi marks "Moor" differently. The first syllable of Moor is marked marcato (remember that Moor in Italian is Mo-ro). (1) But even before this, he refers to Otello in this manner: (2)
Italian: I foschi baci di quel selvaggio dalle gonfie labbra.
English: The dark kiss of that savage from [his] thick lips.
Is this perhaps Iago falling into the trap of a stereotype? Is this the reason for his hatred? This passage is accompanied only by the strings with each chord marked Marcato. The dynamics are marked pp suggesting that Iago does not want anyone except Roderigo to know his true feelings of "that Moor." The Marcato indicates strong feelings.
Otello excelled as a warrior. Regardless of the color of his skin, he was elevated to a position of great honor and responsibility. When someone rises quickly in an organization, he or she acquires enemies, sometimes known, sometimes not. Otello has no suspicions of Iago, nothing to indicate any evil is underfoot. Iago has treated him with the highest respect and courtesy. Iago has one motivation for wanting to destroy Otello: the incident with Cassio. The fact that Otello is black allows Iago to use this as a tool against him. In this dialogue, Iago also gives us insight into his views on women. "I've yet to encounter a woman's vow I could not break." This is in reference to Desdemona's marriage with Otello. He promises Roderigo Desdemona. In just a few lines, Boito has given us many motives to consider for Iago's villainy.
A crowd gathers around the bonfire. The atmosphere is light and the music rhythmic as the Fire is praised and compared to love. There are also allusions to a bride and groom. The scene is calming and puts one at ease after the first moments of the opening.
The tension begins to mount again, as Iago and Roderigo work to intoxicate Cassio, who resists at first. Iago, the great manipulator, goads Cassio by toasting the marriage of Otello and Desdemona, a toast that no one could deny. Iago commands Roderigo to engage in a fight with Cassio. The fight ensues and the crowd is drawn into the skirmish.
Suddenly Otello appears and orders, "Down with your swords." Otello once again musically dominates the moment. His 'Abbasse le spade' is totally acapella followed by a ff chord from the orchestra. For the next eleven measures, he once again is accompanied by the strings and one more orchestral chord. In fact, the rolling r's make it sound as if Otello's anger has been aroused even if the singer's voice does not reflect it.
Olà che avvien? Son io fra i Sarceni?
Ola turchesca rabbia è in voi trasfusa
da sbranaanrvi l'un l'altro? Onesto
Iago, per quell amor che tu mi porti, parla.
(Verdi 1980, 37-8.)
Iago claims ignorance when asked how the fight began. He also claims utter disappointment at what he had witnessed. All through this scene, Otello presents an imposing figure of authority. When he finds Montano wounded, his anger rises again and he demotes Cassio. He remains steadfast as the stage clears and the music segues into the love duet.
It is now time for Otello to establish the loving side of his personality. We have seen Otello the victor and Otello the Governor; now it is time for Otello the devoted husband and lover. Alone with Desdemona, he remarks that the dark night is now silenced. "Let war rage and the world be engulfed as long as I have you when it is over." Desdemona praises him. She tells him of the lonely nights without him and how wonderful it is finally to be with him. Otello's passion is once more aroused as he recalls the battles of his childhood. The duet is what one would expect of newly weds who are reunited: each praises the other, full of love, admiration and respect. Otello is clearly prone to be swept up in waves of passion and his rage is also easily rekindled.
So what are the impressions we have going into the Second Act? Otello is a noble proud warrior whose presence is very commanding. He is prone to fits of rage and passion, with a tendency to become swept up in the moment. By his actions, he appears very self-confident and is very much in love with Desdemona. Iago is a manipulator and we feel he has the potential to become completely immersed in evil. We know he is plotting, but we are unsure of the direction he is going. However, let us not forget Iago's reputation at this point. The only person who truly knows the extent of the depths of darkness in Iago's soul is Emilia. The rest of the world is still ignorant of the evil lurking inside this complacent young man. This fact allows Iago to be so powerful an adversary and so supreme a manipulator. One has to wonder what Iago did for sport before this adventure. Desdemona is very much in love with Otello, to the point of worshipping him, and she trusts him completely. Roderigo is completely under Iago's control.
Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.