There are many great entrances in opera. But none seems as compelling, informative, and brief as that of the title character in Verdi’s Otello. Only 12 bars long, it lasts barely more than half a minute yet defines Otello’s persona with a force and directness that is without peer. Julian Budden in his exegesis of the opera says of this entrance, “Otello’s solo goes far beyond the mere announcement that the Turks have been defeated in battle and their pride laid low; it places Otello himself on a peak of sublimity from which his descent will be all the more terrible.”
Otello’s cry of ‘Esultate’ (Rejoice) establishes the tenor’s herculean task right from his first word. The demands of the role never ease throughout the opera’s four acts. This solo’s difficulty lies in it placement of the vocal line in the most vulnerable part of the tenor’s range – the passagio, the notes that mark the transition from chest voice to the tenor’s upper register – about F to A above middle C. To further the difficulty, the solo ends with a grace note high B descending to an A. It (as does the rest of the part) requires a singer with great power and technical ability to bring it off. As you’ll hear below many tenors fudge the piece in one way or another. The vocal score appears at the end of this article.
I’ve collected 14 tenors singing this entrance. Most sang the role onstage. I’ll start with the best Otello I’ve yet heard – Mario Del Monaco. I heard him sing the Moor several times at the old Met. He was meant to sing Otello. He had a dark baritonal timbre with a powerful top. What stops his interpretation from perfection his the omission of the grace note. Esultate Del Monaco is from a 1958 Met performance. He, like every other tenor who sings the role, pays no attention to the time value of any of Verdi’s notes. I suspect Verdi knew any tenor would hold the high notes for as long as he pleased.
Lauritz Melchior sang Otello in Europe, but gave only one performance of the opera’s last act at the Met. He has all the voice needed for the part, but doesn’t attempt the grace note. Given his imposing physical presence and his equally imposing voice, his interpretation of the role was doubtless formidable. Melchior Esulate
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi was another tenor who sang Otello in Europe, but never at the Met. He gives an impressive reading of the solo, but lacks the baritonal overtones that add stature to Otello’s heroic and tortured nature. Nevertheless, he does not lack power. Lauri-Volpi Esultate
Nicola Fusati (1876-1956) is the only tenor among those presented here who is likely unknown to many readers. He was active mainly in Italy from 1908 to 1932. I may get around to doing a post on him at a later date. He had a rich dramatic tenor that sounds right for Otello, though he too drops the grace note. Fusati Esultate
Ramón Vinay started as a baritone, became a tenor and a noted Otello. Later in his career he returned to baritone roles and performed Iago. His dark baritonal voice made his Otello a success. He sang Otello 18 times at the Met and did the part under Toscanini in the broadcast and subsequent recording of the opera. Vinay Esultate
Jon Vickers was an acclaimed Otello. He was the Met’s Otello 31 times. His voice was well suited for the part, though his sound was somewhat dry. This version is very slow. Vicker Esultate
Franco Corelli never sang Otello. This was his worst career move. He fully admitted so after he had retired. He would have been a grand Otello given his powerful voice and heroic looks. He did record Otello’s entrance. Corelli Esultate
Giuseppe Giacomini had a stupendous voice; yet he never achieved the celebrity that he deserved. He did, however, sing at most of the world’s major houses. I heard him as Calaf in Turandot in Sicily. His ‘Nessun dorma’ brought down the house or would have had there been one. It was an outdoor performance. He recorded a complete Otello; but I don’t know if he sang the role onstage. He certainly had everything needed for the part. Giacomini Esultate
Placido Domingo added Otello to his repertoire when he was only 34. Everyone at the time, me included, though he was committing vocal suicide; we were all wrong. His fine technique and musicianship allowed him to become one of the great Otello’s. He sang the role 40 times at the Met. The following recording dates from 1976 shortly after he first assumed the part. Domingo Esultate
Every tenor seems to think he’s up to the demands of Otello. Luciano Pavarotti was no exception. He performed Otello in a concert version of the opera with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti that was recorded and is still available. His voice, of course, is completely wrong for Verdi’s tragic hero, but he got through it without serious complications. His entrance solo is very good. He adds an extra note on his way up to the grace note. I’m surprised Solti let him get away with it. Pavarotti Esultate
Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine was Otello six times at the Met – all in 2003. He has a large and somewhat ponderous voice. Galouzine Esultate
Argentine tenor José Cura has sung Otello at multiple venues – including six times at the Met, all in 2013. He solve Esultate’s difficulty by lowering the piece a full tone and even at this pitch he still omits the grace note. Esultate Cura
Jonas Kauffman started singing Otello in 2017. The following excerpt is from his first performance as Otello. Like all his work, his version is intelligent and perfectly sung. He’s continuing to sing the role and likely is the best Otello now active. Kauffman Esultate
Australian tenor Stuart Skelton was the Otello in the Met’s current run of the opera. He was competent, though not very exciting. Skelton Esultate
Verdi’s tragic opera will continue to intrigue audiences and challenge tenors for the foreseeable future. Esultate is just the first challenge that death defying tenors must overcome when they impersonate Otello.