Rossini wrote Otello in 1816, between Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, as a commission for the royal theatre in Naples. Anyone expecting a faithful musical rendition of Shakespeare – as Lord Byron did – was in for a disappointment. The poet saw a performance in Venice in 1818 and thundered afterwards, “They have been crucifying Othello into an opera”. In Rossini’s day, Shakespeare’s plays were known on the continent almost exclusively from adapted and sometimes almost unrecognizable versions. But if Rossini’s opera is considered as an original artistic reworking of the Othello story, its extraordinary qualities become apparent and the resounding success it met with in the 19th century becomes understandable. It is especially in the vivid portraits of the characters’ souls and in the third act in which the explosion of emotions occurs, accompanied by a storm, an explosion of natural forces, that Rossini abandons the hitherto customary number structure and – in the words of the Rossini expert Philip Gossett – “the watershed between opera of the 18th century and that of the 19th is to be found.”
Otello, a black African, is in the employ of Venice. He has won a battle near Cyprus for the republic and now returns to Venice in triumph. He is secretly engaged to Desdemona, daughter of the distinguished Venetian gentleman Elmiro. But the Doge’s son, Rodrigo, also wishes to win Desdemona. Both Elmiro and Rodrigo hate the successful immigrant Otello, while Elmiro would look very favorably on his daughter’s marriage to Rodrigo. But for some time now he has observed a growing and worrying intimacy between Desdemona and Otello. To settle matters, his daughter’s wedding to Rodrigo is scheduled to take place without delay. When Otello unexpectedly appears in the middle of the ceremony, the initially hesitant Desdemona once and for all refuses to plight her troth to Rodrigo. It becomes clear that Desdemona is already promised to Otello. Rodrigo now enlists the help of the scheming Jago to drive Desdemona and Otello apart. Jago knows that Otello is insanely jealous and hatches a plot with the aid of a letter. Otello now believes that Desdemona loves Rodrigo after all and stabs her to death. When the truth of the plot is revealed, Otello kills himself out of remorse.