Deceptive Cadence
5:45 pm
Sat October 5, 2013

How Verdi Improved On Shakespeare

Originally published on Wed October 9, 2013 3:22 pm

This past week may have been a rough one for the classical world, but there is something to look forward to.

This coming week, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, composer of the best opera of all time. (That's right, Wagner fans. Start writing those letters.)

I'm talking about Verdi's spectacular rendering of Othello, the Moor of Venice. A Shakespearean tragedy helps to class up a genre that tends to run toward the sordid. And, dare I say it, Verdi made a few improvements on Shakespeare's original.

We all remember Iago, the slimy schemer who dupes Othello into thinking that Desdemona is having an affair. In the play, I'm always left wondering, "Why is this scumbag so evil?"

Verdi gives Iago an aria, Credo in un Dio crudel, to explain himself: "I am evil because I am a man, because I have that primeval slime in me," he sings.

Iago believes in a nasty world of nature, survival of the cruelest, and that morality and heaven are a joke: The dark side of the post-Darwin world that was scary to Verdi's generation.

On the other end of the moral scale, there's Desdemona. For me, she's one of Shakespeare's more problematic characters: She can turn into little more than Iago's tool and Othello's punching bag.

But Verdi's Desdemona opens her soul — as in her Ave Maria that it's almost impossible to believe was composed by an atheist.

And then there's Othello himself, his inner torment always on full musical display. Othello has everything — racial politics, gender politics, politics politics, all there to be picked apart any way you like. It's timeless.

And, most importantly: It's got those glorious Verdi choruses that make you feel like setting off confetti cannons.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

There is something to look forward to, though. This coming week, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, in my opinion, composer of the best opera of all time. That's right, Wagner fans, start writing those letters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: I'm talking about Verdi's spectacular rendering of Shakespeare's "Othello, the Moor of Venice."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Othello) (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: A Shakespearean tragedy helps to class up a genre that, let's face it, tends to run towards the sordid. And, dare I say it, Verdi made improvements on Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Iago) (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: That's Iago, the slimy schemer who dupes Othello into thinking that Desdemona is having an affair. In the play, I'm always left wondering: Why is this scumbag so evil? Verdi gives Iago an aria to explain himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Iago) (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: I am evil because I am a man, because I have that primeval slime in me, he sings. Iago believes in a nasty world of nature, survival of the cruelest, and that morality and heaven are a joke: the dark side of the post-Darwin world that was scary to Verdi's generation. On the other side of the moral scale, there's Desdemona.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: For me, she's one of Shakespeare's more problematic characters. She can turn into little more than Iago's tool and Othello's punching bag. But Verdi's Desdemona opens her soul, as in her "Ave Maria" that it's almost impossible to believe was composed by an atheist.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: And then there's Othello himself, his inner torment always on full musical display.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Othello) (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: It's got everything - racial politics, gender politics, politics politics, all there to be picked apart any way you like. It's timeless. And most important, it's got those glorious Verdi choruses that make you feel like setting off confetti cannons.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Characters) (Singing in foreign language)

RATH: And for Saturday, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Check for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. Until tomorrow, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.