Verdi’s penultimate opera is a masterpiece of dramatic cohesion and inspiration. Set to one of opera’s greatest librettos, it reflects all that its composer had learned from a life spent in the the theater. The duet, ‘Si pel ciel’, that ends the second act is as rousing as anything Verdi had written 40 years earlier, though its orchestral accompaniment is more sophisticated. It depicts the transformation Iago has made of Otello from the loving husband of Act 1 to the murderous maniac he’s become by the end of Act 2. The Italian and English words to the duet are below.

The title role of Otello is the most demanding dramatic tenor role in Italian opera and perhaps in all opera. Iago, is a typical Verdi baritone role – which is to say that it’s set in the upper part of the baritone range, that it needs a very strong baritone voice, and it’s very demanding.

I’ll start with perhaps the most famous recording of the duet, made with the two lions of early 20th century opera – Enrico Caruso and Tita Ruffo. This is the only recording released that features the two singers. They made another, but it’s in Edison heaven. Both singers in 1914 were at their vocal peaks. Ruffo sang Iago many times. Caruso was planning to add the role to his repertoire, but his untimely death intervened. Caruso Ruffo Si pel Ciel.

Aureliano Pertile was Arturo Toscanini’s favorite tenor during their years together at La Scala (1927-37). Pertile’s voice was somewhat rough, but his power of expression was vast. Benvenuto Franci is the baritone on this recording. Pertile Franci Si pel ciel.

Max Lorenz was one of the last century’s greatest heldentenors. He also sang a lot of Verdi – all in German. His Otello was was one of his finest Italian roles. He’s joined with Mathieu Ahlersmeyer on this recording. Lorenz Ahlersmeyer Si pel ciel. The sound quality is poor, but Lorenz’s stentorian voice still comes through.

Lauritz Melchior, dubbed ‘Tristanissimo’ by Toscanini, sang Otello in Europe, but never at the Met where his appearance in the role was allegedly ‘protested’ by his Italian colleagues. When the company’s general manager , Giulio Gatti-Casazza retired, he had Melchior sing Act 4 with Elisabeth Rethberg at the Gala given in his honor. Melchior got rave reviews. He’s joined in this recording by another stalwart of the Met’s German wing, Herbert Janssen. Melchior Janssen Si pel ciel. Melchior who started as a baritone, has the baritonal bite needed for Verdi’s tortured Moor.

Giacomo Lauri-Volpi sang more than 300 performances at the Met. He was the company’s first Calaf in Turandot, but he never attempted Otello. He did sing the part elsewhere. He joined with the fine Italian baritone Mario Basiola. Lauri-Volpi Basiola Si pel ciel.

Giovanni Martinelli sang Otello 26 times at the Met. This excerpt is taken from a 1938 broadcast. Lawrence Tibbett is Iago. Martinelli Tibbett Si pel ciel. Martinelli’s tendency to be almost on pitch is evident.

Helge Rosvaenge was a Danish tenor who made most of his career in Germany and environs. He was famous for his forceful delivery and bright high notes. This recording with baritone Hans Reinmar was made in Germany in 1943. Rosvaenge Reinmar Si pel ciel.

The Chilean tenor Ramon Vinay started as a baritone, became a tenor, and then finished his career again as a baritone. He sang both Otello and Iago. Of course, Placido Domingo in his current guise as a baritone may repeat the feat. When Toscanini recorded Otello in 1947 he chose Vinay for the title role. His Iago was Giuseppe Valdengo. Vinay Valdengo Si pel ciel.

Two versions of the duet with Leonard Warren as Iago. The first is from a 1947 San Francisco performance with the Wagnerian tenor Set Svanholm. Svanholm Warren Si pel ciel. The second is from a 1958 Met performance with, in my opinion, the definitive Otello – Mario Del Monaco. Del Monaco Warren Si pel ciel. Warren, of course, was the nonpareil Verdi baritone.

Another two versions featuring another great American baritone – Robert Merrill. First with Jussi Björling from their famous 1950 album of duets. Björling’s voice was much too small to ever attempt Otello in a theater, but he could do anything in front of a microphone. Björling Merrill Si pel ciel. James McCracken sang bit parts at the Met in the 50s. He then went to Europe where he expanded his technique. In the 60s he became one of the world’s leading Otellos. McCracken Merrill Si pel ciel. This excerpt is taken from a TV program.

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers was renowned for the depth and intensity of his characterizations. His voice was large , but strained above  a high A. Otello was one of his most renowned roles, though he never sang it at the Met. He recorded the complete opera twice. This excerpt is from the first of these recording. Tito Gobbi is Iago. Vickers Gobbi Si pel ciel.

Many observers, including me, thought that Placido Domingo would destroy his voice when he first sang Otello in 1975. But it became his most acclaimed and frequently performed role; he sang it more than 200 times. Domingo always had trouble with high C, but his high B-flat was a wonder as you can hear on this recording with baritone Renato Bruson. Domingo Bruson Si pel ciel.

Luciano Couldn’t resist the temptation of Otello. He gave two concert performances of the opera with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti. Leo Nucci was Iago. Pavarotti Nucci Si pel ciel.

Giuseppe Giacomini had a strange career. He gave 85 performances at the Met between 1975-88, yet his best years were after he left the New York house. I heard him as Calaf in Sicily in the 90s. He was much better than he had been at the Met. His ‘Nessun Dorma’ drove the Sicilians wild and they almost rioted for an encore, which they didn’t get. This excerpt was recorded after he had departed the Met. Sherril Milnes is the baritone. Giacomini Milnes Si pel ciel.

Finally, here is the last tenor to sing Verdi’s crazed husband at the Met – the Latvian Aleksandrs Antonenko. The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic is Iago. Antonenko Lucic Si pel ciel.

 

OTELLO
Oh! mostuosa colpa!

JAGO
Io non narrai che un sogno.

OTELLO
Un sogno che rivela un fatto.

JAGO
Un sogno che può dar forma di prova
ad altro indizio.

OTELLO
E qual?

JAGO
Talor vedeste
in mano di Desdemona un tessuto trapunto
a fior e più sottil d’un velo?

OTELLO
È il fazzoletto ch’io le diedi,
pegno primo d’amor.

JAGO
Quel fazzoletto ieri
(certo ne son) lo vidi in man di Cassio.

OTELLO
Ah! Mille vite gli donasse Iddio!
Una è povera preda al furor mio!!
Jago, ho il cor di gelo.
Lungi da me le pietose larve!
Tutto il mio vano amor escalo al cielo;
Guardami, ei sparve.
Nelle suespire d’angue
L’idra m’avvince!
Ah! Sangue, sangue, sangue!
S’inginocchia
Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori!
Per la Morte e per l’oscuro mar sterminator!
D’ira e d’impeto tremendo
presto fia che sfolgori
Questa man ch’io levo e stendo!

(Levando la mano al cielo. Otello fa per alzarsi; Jago lo trattiene inginocchiato)

JAGO
s’inginocchia anch’esso
Non v’alzate ancor!
Testimon è il Sol ch’io miro,
che m’irradia e inanima
l’ampia terra e il vasto spiro
del Creato inter,
che ad Otello io sacro ardenti,
core, braccio ed anima
s’anco ad opere cruenti
s’armi il suo voler!

JAGO e OTELLO
alzando le mani al cielo come chi giura
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori!
Per la Morte e per l’oscuro mar sterminator!
D’ira e d’impeto tremendo presto fia
che sfolgori questa man ch’io levo e stendo!
Dio vendicator!

OTHELLO
0 monstrous guilt!

IAGO
1 told you but a dream.

OTHELLO
A dream that reveals a fact.

IAGO
A dream that may
give substance to another circumstance.

OTHELLO
And which is that?

IAGO
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
embroidered with flowers in Desdemona’s hand,
of finer stuff than lawn?

OTHELLO
That is the handkerchief I gave her,
first token of my love.

IAGO
That handkerchief I saw – I am sure of it –
yesterday in the hand of Cassio!

OTHELLO
O, that God had given him a thousand lives!
One is too poor a prey for my revenge!
Iago, my heart is ice.
Banished be the spirits of mercy.
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
Watch me…’tis gone!
In its snaky coils
the hydra has entwined me!
O, blood, blood, blood!
(He kneels.)
Now, by yond marble heaven!
By the jagged lightning-flash!
By Death, and by the dark
death-dealing ocean flood!
In fury and dire compulsion
shall thunder-bolts soon rain

(raising his hands to the sky)
from this hand that I raise outstretched!
(He starts to rise; Iago prevents him.)

IAGO (kneeling also)
Do not rise yet!
Witness, you sun that I gaze on,
which lights me and which animates
the broad earth and the spiritual expanse
of the whole universe,
that to Othello I do consecrate
ardently heart, hands and soul
even though on bloody business
his will be bent!

OTHELLO, IAGO
(raising their hands to heaven in an oath-taking gesture)
Now, by yond marble heaven!
By the jagged lightning-flash, etc.
God of vengeance!