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Rossini's Overlooked 'Otello'

Rossini's operatic version of Shakespeare's <em>Othello</em> came long before Verdi's, and is now rarely performed.
Wikimedia Commons
Rossini's operatic version of Shakespeare's Othello came long before Verdi's, and is now rarely performed.

It's often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when it comes to music there are times when that flattery winds up more famous than its inspiration.

For example, who comes to mind when the soul hit "Respect" is mentioned? Aretha Franklin, right? Well, fair enough. Still, the first version of the tune was actually written and released a couple of years earlier than Aretha's — by Otis Redding. He was a legend in his own right, but Redding's original version of "Respect" is sometimes, well, disrespected.

The same thing happened to a legendary opera composer when Giuseppe Verdi's Otello was premiered in 1887. That opera quickly became a landmark among musical settings of Shakespeare. But Verdi wasn't the first great composer to score a hit with an opera based on Othello — it had already been done seven decades earlier by Gioachino Rossini.

Rossini's Otello seldom gets its due in today's theaters. And it may have been overshadowed not just by Verdi's opera, but also by a couple of Rossini's own works. Its 1816 debut was sandwiched between the premieres of two immensely popular Rossini comedies: The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola.

Later on, lovers of both music and Shakespeare may have decided that Verdi's opera simply hews more closely to the original play. But, while Rossini's Otello may stray a bit from Shakespeare at the start, by the time the opera's last act begins, the composer and the bard seem joined at the hip in a hair-raising finale that rivals even Verdi's masterful tragedy.

The final act of Rossini's Otello was also a significant moment both in Rossini's career and for opera as a whole. The drama's first two acts are in a fairly traditional opera seria style. But with his third act, Rossini seems to enter a whole new world of freely flowing dramatic expression, carried by intensely emotional music. Even the subject matter was daring. Early 19th-century operas almost always had happy endings, even if they had to be engineered using preposterous plot twists. But, as in Shakespeare's play, the end of Rossini's opera is both tragic and disturbing, even today.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone present's Rossini's Otello from the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris, with tenor John Osborne in the title role and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as Desdemona, in a production led by conductor Evelino Pidò.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.