Verdi arrived in Milan on 4 January 1887 to begin rehearsing Otello; the general rehearsals (as the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano of 30 January 1887 announced on page 41) began on January 27; the dress rehearsal took place on 3 February, and two days later the first performance was given with Franco Faccio conducting and Romilda Pantaleoni, Francesco Tamagno and Victor Maurel in the main roles.
[ … ] The principal singers of Otello had each received their parts by the beginning of the autumn, and had every opportunity of learning them thoroughly by the day Verdi arrived in Milan, when he went almost immediately to La Scala to start the piano rehearsals. (1) The excellent Cairati (2) had been rehearsing the chorus for two months.
That first day, after Boito, Faccio, Maestro Coronaro (3) and Giulio Ricordi had all exchanged the usual compliments (briefly, because Verdi is not by nature loquacious), as people who have not seen each other for some time are wont to do, the Maestro approached the piano and requested the artists to sing through the great ensemble of act 3, scene 8. (4) The sheer excitement of finding themselves in the presence of Verdi defeated them all: the Maestro was not pleased, the ladies were frightened and the men exchanged questioning looks. The second time, however, the piece went better, and a smile of satisfaction appeared on every face.
In addition to the usual hall for the harpsichord rehearsals, the theater management had prepared another room, especially reserved for Verdi, with a fine Erard. And there the Maestro went with the principal singers. He himself sat at the piano to run through solo numbers and duets; he gave advice and encouragement, and every now and them uttered one of those words which are worth more to an artist than any triumph. Verdi was anxious, however, to fuse singing and acting as soon as possible, and he could teach actors as well as singers. He would insist upon the greatest degree of naturalness, and with a keen eye he studied every movement, every gesture to discover what seemed to him most natural and true. Pantaleoni sang the willow song sweetly, interrupting it with the words that Desdemona must address to Emilia, who helps her take off her jewels. She sings the lines:
Scendean gli augelli a vol dai rami cupi
Verso quel dolce canto …
and then to Emilia: Riponi questo anello. [ "Put away this ring." ] The Maestro pointed out that, to make the interruption seem less brusque, she should let the ring be seen on her finger, as she made the gesture with which she indicated so gracefully the birds flying down from the boughs … With such a Maestro, is it possible to interpret a role with anything but great refinement?
Tamagno's turn came. At the end of the final scene Otello must fall. Verdi required a tragic fall à la Salvini. Tamagno rehearsed it several times, but the Maestro was not completely satisfied. Seeing that the artist was tired, he postponed rehearsing the fall to another day; and meanwhile, adoring children as he does, he went to cuddle and play with the famous tenor's little daughter, who had come to La Scala to collect her daddy. Tamagno fell ill and had to stay at home for several days. Giulio Ricordi stood in for him, singing softly in the ensembles. But Giulio Ricordi during these days is needed by everyone at La Scala; he is called away and Verdi himself takes his place in a scene with Desdemona, in which he considers the embrace to be too cold, too restrained. Changing roles for a moment, the Maestro demonstrates to Pantaleoni a fervent, passionate embrace.
Many will not believe it, yet it is true: at five o'clock in the afternoon, when the singers, Faccio, Coronaro and even Giulio Ricordi are exhausted, Verdi, with all of his 73 years, descends as fresh as a rose into the courtyard, which opens onto Via Filodrammatici, and climbs once more into the carriage in which he arrived at midday, to return to the Hôtel de Milan.
The general rehearsals of Otello began on January 27, and took place at the same time as the stage rehearsals. It is easy to imagine how the excellent La Scala orchestra listened with affectionate respect to Verdi's occasional observations. For the chorus and extras only appear again at the end of that act, for a few moments in the second, and then in the great finale of act 3. Apart from its other great merits, Verdi's new opera has the additional advantage of being stageable even in smaller theaters, without the need of enormous stage machinery … provided the singers are good.
Despite the numerous requests, Verdi has remained adamant in his policy of admitting no intruders to either the rehearsals or the dress-rehearsals, as he knew they would not keep silent about what they had seen and heard. His wish is that the audience should receive an impression that has not been colored by the gossip of the privileged few. And he is absolutely right.
For any lover of art, the sight of Verdi conducting a general rehearsal has something truly awe-inspiring about it. The eye can hardly make out the long rows of empty seats in the vast, dark and empty stalls. The silk curtains of many boxes are drawn, thus increasing the general air of respectful mystery. The orchestral players are in their places several minutes before the fixed hour; they talk in whispers; and as you would expect, they talk of the opera and the Maestro. Not a soul to be seen or heard in the wings. [ … ] Chorus and extras wait in their large rooms to be called on stage. The principal artists are in their dressing-rooms, which every now and then emit a trill or a phrase repeated many times, as if the singer wished to study the effect. [ … ]
At half past eight the Maestro arrives. Boito, Giulio Ricordi and Faccio are already present and have gone to meet him at the entrance on the Via de' Filodrammatici side. The Maestro is dressed as usual in his fur coat, with a silk scarf around his neck. On stage he unbuttons his coat and loosens his scarf a little, and sometimes removes it. [ … ] He sits down; Faccio is already on the rostrum and has twice rapped his desk to gain the attention of his players. It is the normal custom - but the players are already intent upon the music and ready to begin. [ … ] - Ugo Pesci
The preceeding material was exerpted from: (Conati 1984, 184-7.)
Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.