I prefer my opera to be aural rather than visual. Opera is a form that is made for listening, not watching -- at least in my view. The music, Mozart or Verdi, is frequently transcendent and most satisfying. But on those occasions when I venture to the opera house and I have to deal with the cultic, cachectic audience and the grand-opera worshippers as well as the ridiculous plots, the unhandsome singers, the interminable intermissions, the staginess and artifice and the general all-around silliness -- as well as pay through the nose for the privilege of doing so, well then, I'm not always a happy fellow.
I know the sound of Verdi's Otello moderately well, having played the Placido Domingo version often enough for the laser to have bored holes into the cd. Moreover, as it happens, I'm moderately familiar with Shakespeare's play). But I had never seen a performance of Otello until this past Saturday when we betook ourselves and our bagels and our Granny Smiths to the Century Theatre to watch the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD performance. It was, frankly, glorious -- Renee Fleming in the electronic flesh, moving us to tears with the willow song (along with Verdi's bonus, dubious Ave Maria).
She was superb; so were the orchestra, the costumes, the sets, even the overacting, villainous Iago, who would have twirled his mustachios, if he had had them, and the non-acting, expressionless Othello.
Our "guide," a robust, comfortable mezzo whose name I should know but didn't catch, made the claim that Verdi's Otello improved upon Shakespeare's Othello. A highly dubious claim, I think, but then, I don't know how to measure the value of the grand "Othello music," that Shakespeareans so much admire, against the cellos and the bassoons. Whether for better or worse, however, there's a heck of a lot in Shakespeare's play that didn't make it across the centuries and genres and into Verdi's opera. More than can be said in a paragraph or a blaguepost.
For starters, Shakespeare created a multi-layered society, not just elaborate sets. His city of Venice has a sense of itself as a successful, orderly, civilized, and advanced community. Into this world strides Othello, not only an outlander but an African and a erotic exotic. Although Venice needs his soldiership, he's still a black man in a racist world who marries a willful patrician lady who prefers him to the "wealthy curled darlings of the nation." It's an unlikely, perilous match: he's "declined into the vale of years" while she's very very young. He's a soldier who's been around the world; she's the secluded mistress of the house affairs. He's commanding; she's naive.
Verdi must have loved Othello, although not necessarily for the right reasons. How could a play that ends on a bed, with a climactic murder-suicide, not have excited the instincts of the composer of Aida. Nothing more appropriate for grand opera than Othello and Desdemona -- and yet o so simple a representation compared with Shakespeare's rich figures and complex society.
Imagine a Merchant of Venice in which Shylock is not Jewish, or a King Lear in which Lear is a troubled forty-something and you're well on your way to grasping an Othello in which melanin is replaced with melodrama.
As a result, even when Verdi brought tears to my eyes, it was because I was seeing through the opera to the play that lies beneath it.
And sometimes I was crying because I so desperately missed the beauties and the profundity that Verdi had not seen fit to include.