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Opéra de Montréal sets Verdi’s Otello on fire

Moral pyromania at Place des Arts

By Robert Kilborn

The human scorpion is perpetually at war with itself and the world. It stabs or tears at the flesh of others with words and actions of subtle or astonishing cruelty. It can’t stomach the success, talent, beauty, intelligence, happiness, or fulfillment of others, and so must destroy every felicity with gossip, manipulation, and spite. For sport, it will sting its victims into emotional chaos, or hysteria, or until they bloat with poison, unable to move or breathe.

The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello is the human scorpion writ at the cosmic level. Milton modeled Satan in Paradise Lost on him. Dostoevsky’s shocking nihilists grew out of aspects of his personality. Philosophers, psychologists and literary critics remain confounded by him. How can we say anything valuable about a type who ultimately baffles commentary?

Noble lion of war Othello, the great Moor and conquering general of the Venetian republic — a black man and an outsider indispensable to the state — marries white Desdemona, the most desirable débutante in Venice, and Shakespeare’s greatest representation of selfless love. Othello passes over Iago when choosing his lieutenant. For this injury, Iago will destroy Othello by convincing him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, the handsome Venetian aristocrat Othello has elevated in his place. Manipulation, betrayal, and moral collapse follow, until Othello, in a jealous rage, smothers Desdemona in her marriage bed. Desdemona’s devoted lady-in-waiting, Iago’s wife Emilia, reveals her husband’s plot, which turns on a carefully lost handkerchief. Othello stabs himself, kisses Desdemona, falls over his innocent wife’s still warm body and dies.

Verdi’s Otello adapts. The composer and his ingenious librettist Boito omit Shakespeare’s first act, edit out minor characters, and telescope events in a satisfyingly organic manner, suitable for the musical stage. When the orchestra booms and crashes, and the people of Venice look anxiously out to sea for the sail of Otello’s returning ship, and the lion of war makes his Mars-like entrance, and we learn that the invading Turkish fleet has been destroyed under the waves, we know that we are witnessing a cosmic battle of limitless force. Shakespeare and Verdi and Boito draw constant analogies between war in heaven (thunder and lightning), earthly war (Turks vs. Venetians, death by land and water), and war in the human psyche (Iago-Othello-Desdemona).

Shakespeare and Verdi and Boito draw constant analogies between war in heaven (thunder and lightning), earthly war (Turks vs. Venetians, death by land and water), and war in the human psyche (Iago-Othello-Desdemona).

In Shakespeare, Iago is an ever-burgeoning representation of self-delighting evil, a rancid wit and desolate intellectual aesthete who stabs men in the dark to prevent ennui. Metaphors of fire burn through the text, and Iago is its moral pyromaniac. Folding his pincers while plotting Cassio’s assassination, the scorpion says: “If Cassio do remain, / He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.”

In Verdi, Iago is a more conventional villain. But if we keep Shakepeare’s Iago constantly in mind, Verdi’s music more than compensates for the lacunae in Boito’s subtle and resonant libretto.

Seldom in opera has the battle between love and war in the human psyche been so richly sounded as here. Otello’s descent from nobility to psychic dismemberment, Emilia’s loyalty and self-sacrifice, Desdemona’s forgiveness and purity of love, lacerate the heart. Premonitory set pieces flow by like milk and honey laced with strychnine. Vocal counterpoint keeps the medulla whirring with the subconscious truths of sensation. A new daring, complexity, and even dissonance appear in Verdi’s orchestration (this was his penultimate opera, composed more than a decade after his 1871 “retirement”). Powerfully accented notes, played by the full orchestra, stress Iago’s machinations. A “kiss” theme, alchemized by the English horn, appears thrice in the opera, with shimmeringly mesmeric effect.

Hiromi Omura as Desdemona

Hiromi Omura as Desdemona, Shakespeare’s greatest representation of selfless love — © Yves Renaud

Opéra de Montréal’s production features the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under the baton of Keri-Lynn Wilson. Tenor Kristian Benedikt as Otello gives a exquisitely wounded, war god-like performance, replete with Verdian nuance as richly burnished as his armour. Soprano Hiromi Omura sings Desdemona with great delicacy and imaginative understanding. And baritone Aris Argiris brings the deadly Iago to poisonous life, as cunning as the fox, as lethal as the scorpion. Finely cast in the other roles: tenor Antoine Bélanger (Cassio), mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal (Emilia), tenor Pasquale D’Alessio (Roderigo), baritone Josh Whelan (Montano), bass Valerian Ruminski (Lodovico), and baritone Geoffroy Salvas (a Herald).

The Scorpion and the Lion

Iago the Scorpion traps, torments, and finally exterminates the Lion of war upon whom the state relies for its protection and security. He annihilates love (Desdemona), shatters loyalty (Emilia), and razes friendship (Cassio, Roderigo). What is his motivation? Is it his sense of injured merit and thwarted ambition? Hatred for Othello’s noble superiority? Or merely a perverted ardor for game-playing and manipulation? Is it self-loathing? Envy of Cassio? Contempt for the world? Lust for Desdemona? Impotence? Why, above all, must Iago destroy Othello? Isn’t he destroying himself in the process? I adapt the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog:

“A scorpion asks a lion to carry it across a river. The lion hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the lion agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the lion, dooming them both. When the lion asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.”

Otello continues 2, 4, and 6 February at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Montreal’s Place des Arts.
Opéra de Montréal

Feature image: Kristian Benedikt as Otello the lion and Aris Argiris as Iago the scorpion — © Yves Renaud


photo: Robert Kilborn

Robert Kilborn has written fiction, nonfiction, essays, articles, and reviews for the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, La Scena Musicale, Westmount Magazine, Cult Montreal, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art (New York), and Tuck Magazine (London, England). He started out as a rock singer. At the University of British Columbia he read Literature, Philosophy, and Art History. He’s been an English teacher, a restaurant consultant, a Don Draper, and General Manager of one of Canada’s leading modern dance companies, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.

Check out Robert Kilborn’s LinkedIn profile and Westmount Magazine listing. Contact him at rkilborn@sympatico.ca.




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