The finale of Act 3 of Verdi’s Otello consists of the most elaborate concertato that Verdi ever wrote. The following comments borrow from Julian Budden’s analysis of this piece in the third volume of his definitive The Operas of Verdi. Verdi wrote great concertatos throughout his career. They are among the great achievements in opera. Otello’s finale here discussed is the supreme example of this style. Nobody before or since has achieved the intricacy, virtuosity, and dramatic effect that Verdi brings to this finale. That Franco Zeffirelli omitted it from his film of the opera stands as one of the great blunders in movie making. It also explains Placido Domingo’s dissatisfaction with the movie in which he starred.
The piece begins with a solo by Desdemona after she has been thrown to the ground by Otello as everyone (except Iago) is frozen in horror – ‘A terra!…si…nel livido fango’. Emilia, Cassio, Roderigo, and Lodovico then comment on their own feelings which are independently expressed. Iago who has been silent then whispers to Otello that he must kill his wife as soon as possible. Iago then turns to Roderigo and encourages him to murder Cassio. The chorus joins in as the music becomes increasingly complex. After a transition, “Desdemona, Emilia, and Cassio [sing] in unison with thunderous triplets on trombones, bassons and lower strings reinforcing the lines of Lodovico and Iago.” Otello who has been quiet rouses himself and orders everyone to leave. he then curses his wife and faints after some incoherent cries. Iago exclaims “Ecco il leone” as he looks at the fallen form of the great leader whom he has destroyed with innuendo alone.
This monumental conclusion to a perfect act is so tellingly drawn that Verdi worried that it might overwhelm all that had come before it. When he prepared the ballet for the Paris premiere of the opera he shortened this finale. But this version never caught on. His fears about the finale proved unfounded and it continues to be recognized as one of the glories of the art form. Here are three versions of this piece led by three of the last century’s most eminent conductors.
First Toscanini. The recording from his 1947 broadcast of the opera features Herva Nelli, Ranon Vinal, and Giuseppe Valdengo as Desdemona, Otello, and Iago respectively. This probably the most fully realized of the three. The only defect is that the principals are too closely miked. This is an inevitable feature of 70 year old recording technology. Toscanini had been in the pit (as a cellist) for Otello’s world premiere back in 1887. His feeling for and understanding of Verdi’s operas were unmatched. Toscanini Otello Act 3 finale
Herbert Von Karajan’s reading of this music is nuanced with extreme variations in dynamics not heard in other recording of this opera. Sometimes it’s hard to hear everything that’s going on in the softer passages with the volume set for the loudest parts of this interpretation. This is also the slowest finale of the three. But the grandeur of the music is completely elaborated. The soloists are Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco (who owned the part), and the much underrated Aldo Protti. Karajan Otello Act 3 finale
Carlos Kleiber was very selective in his choice of repertoire. Otello was a favorite of his. This recording was made on opening night of the 1976 season at La Scala. At this time the opera was new to Placido Domingo in the title role and to Kleiber, as well. This newness may explain why the conductor allowed the maniacal laughter Piero Cappuccilli inserted into end of the act. It clearly is both over the top and out of place. The soprano is Mirella Freni. Kleiber Otello Act 3 finale
More on Otello in the next post.