Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Three outstanding singers go head-to-head in a bold production of Verdi's Otello, conducted by Christian Badea. Direct from triumphs at New York's Metropolitan Opera and La Scala Milan, New Zealand tenor Simon O'Neill is Otello.

The choices are clear on the battlefield. Back home, however, when the cannons fall silent and the skies are clear, a soldier is no match for a master politician.

Otello is the hero and Desdemona is the lover, but Iago is the puppetmaster in this vivid re-telling of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy.

Black or white. Good or evil. Life or death.

The plays of Shakespeare have inspired many an opera, but the problem always remains: how do you improve upon a masterpiece?

In the case of Otello, Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, made a radical revision of the original play, cutting two acts, changing the location and adding operatic flourishes, including a chilling ‘Credo’ for Iago.

You could argue that it is not Shakespeare, but it is certainly a masterpiece.

What Verdi cuts from Shakespeare’s verse, he more than replaces in music: rather than describing Iago in words, his melodies expose his powers of persuasion; no-one could doubt the sincerity of Desdemona when they hear her exquisite ‘Willow Song’; and Verdi has a key advantage over Shakespeare in that he can have multiple characters speaking at once.

This is why we come to opera.

So that we can hear Desdemona asking forgiveness, Otello lost in thought, Iago meddling and Emilia lamenting the quarrel simultaneously, their hopes and fears all woven together in one thrilling ensemble.

So that we can experience through music the emotions that words alone cannot describe.

Conductor Christian Badea
Director Harry Kupfer
Revival Director Roger Press
Set Designer Hans Schavernoch
Costume Designer Yan Tax
Lighting Designer Toby Sewell
Otello Simon O'Neill
Desdemona Lianna Haroutounian (until 19 July)
Natalie Aroyan
Iago Claudio Sgura
Cassio James Egglestone
Emilia Jacqueline Dark
Roderigo David Corcoran
Montano Richard Anderson
Lodovico Pelham Andrews
Herald Tom Hamilton

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

Opera Australia Chorus

Running time: approximately 2 hours & 40 minutes, including one 20-minute interval.

Act I

Cyprus, late 15th century. Cypriots watch anxiously from the shore as a fierce storm batters the Venetian fleet sent to defend their island from the invading Turks. The Moor Otello, a Venetian general and governor of Cyprus, lands his flagship safely in the port and announces the destruction of the Turkish fleet. Iago, Otello’s ensign, confers with the wealthy Roderigo, who is in love with Desdemona, a Venetian beauty recently married to Otello. Promising to help him, Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona will soon tire of her husband. He reveals his hatred for Otello, who passed him over for advancement, promoting Cassio instead. While the citizens celebrate the governor’s victory and his safe return home, Iago proposes a toast. Cassio declines to drink, but Iago argues he cannot refuse to salute Otello’s new wife. Cassio consents and grows tipsy as Iago provokes Roderigo to get into a fight with Cassio. Montano, the former governor, tries to separate the two, but Cassio attacks him as well. Otello appears from the castle to restore order, furious about his soldiers’ behavior. When he sees Desdemona disturbed by the commotion, he takes away Cassio’s recent promotion and commands everyone to leave.

Act II

Iago advises Cassio to present his case to Desdemona. He argues that her influence on the general will certainly get Cassio reinstated. As soon as Cassio is out of sight, Iago declares his belief that a cruel God created man wicked and that life has no meaning. He watches as Cassio approaches Desdemona in the garden. When Otello enters, the lieutenant makes casual remarks about Desdemona’s fidelity. Enchanted by his wife’s beauty, Otello greets her lovingly, but when she brings up the question of Cassio’s demotion, he is angered and complains of a headache. She offers a handkerchief to cool his forehead, but he throws it to the ground. Her attendant Emilia, who is Iago’s wife, picks it up. As Desdemona tries to calm Otello, Iago seizes the handkerchief from Emilia. Otello asks to be alone and everybody leaves, except for Iago, who remains to observe Otello’s growing suspicion. To fan the flames, he invents a story of how Cassio spoke of Desdemona in his sleep; he mentions that he saw her handkerchief in Cassio’s hand. Exploding with rage and jealousy, Otello swears vengeance, and Iago joins in the oath.


A herald informs Otello of the imminent arrival of Venetian ambassadors. Iago tells the general that soon he will have further proof of his wife and Cassio’s betrayal. Desdemona enters, and Otello speaks calmly until she revives the subject of Cassio. When Otello demands the handkerchief he gave her, she again pleads for Cassio. Unable to control his fury any longer, Otello accuses her of infidelity and dismisses her. Left alone, he suffers a fit of desperation and self-pity, then hides as Iago returns with Cassio. Iago flashes the handkerchief he stole and leads the conversation with Cassio in such a way that Otello overhears only fragments and incorrectly assumes they are talking about Desdemona. As trumpets announce the dignitaries from Venice, Otello, whose rage continues to grow, vows to kill his wife that very night. He then greets the ambassador Lodovico, who recalls him to Venice and appoints Cassio to govern Cyprus. Losing control at this news, Otello pushes his wife to the floor, hurling insults. He orders everyone out and collapses in a seizure, while Iago gloats over him.

Act IV

Emilia helps Desdemona prepare for bed. Frightened, Desdemona sings of a maiden forsaken by her lover, then says an emotional goodnight to Emilia and recites her prayers. As soon as she has fallen asleep, Otello enters and wakes Desdemona with a kiss. When Otello starts talking about killing her, she is horrified and protests her innocence, but Otello strangles her. Emilia knocks with news that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Shocked to find the dying Desdemona she summons help. Iago’s plot is finally revealed and Otello realizes what he has done. After reflecting on his past glory he pulls out a dagger and stabs himself, dying with a final kiss for his wife.

Source: Metropolitan Opera

“Claudio Sgura was a tall, five-o'clock-shadowy Iago of masterly malevolence, singing with menacing blackness…”
Sydney Morning Herald

“O’Neill’s vocal and physical presence never wavers.”
The Guardian

“Smoky-toned, firm-voiced baritone Claudio Sgura (Iago) captured his character’s evil heart of darkness, seamlessly switching from oily sycophancy one moment to implacable malevolence the next.”
The Australian


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