Sunday, March 11, 2012

Virginia Zeani: Rossini's Otello—'Desdemona's Willow Song'

This is from an Italian Radio (RAI) performance of 1960. The singers are drawn from the highly successful production staged by Rome Opera, of the same year. Giorgio de Chirico made the sets, both striking and surrealist.

Gioachino Rossini's Otello was first staged at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples, Italy, December 4, 1816, ten months after Il Barbiere di Siviglia ("The Barber of Seville"). Otello is rarely performed today for two reasons: the difficulty of finding three principal tenors with very high voices and coloratura techniques, and  Giuseppe Verdi's later masterpiece is considered better, if not easier to mount.

No doubt, Giuseppe Verdi's Otello, first performed in 1887, is more popular and more known. In a review of a current production at the Zurich Opera, starring Cecilia Bartoli, Zachary Wolfe for The New York Times writes:
Rossini’s work, from 1816, is different in almost every particular. He even omits the classic detail of Desdemona’s supposedly incriminating handkerchief. But despite its divergences from Shakespeare and that it can never quite live up to Verdi’s 1887 version — the culmination of the Italian operatic tradition — Rossini’s “Otello” was a milestone: his first attempt to use his gifts for energy and melody on the broader canvas of three acts, rather than his previous one or two.
Responding to the pool of singers available for the opera’s premiere in Naples, Rossini surrounded his Desdemona with a trio of tenors: Otello, Iago and Rodrigo.
Some will nevertheless enjoy Rossini's interpretation. This beautifully rendered "Willow Song" with its haunting melody and dramatic incident, transports you to another time and place. 


  1. I assume it was Rossini who introduced the idea of a willow song into the opera. If so, he certainly inspired one of Verdi's great arias.
    Rossini and Verdi are among the greatest composers who ever lived. Verdi is performed all the time but not sufficiently respected. Most of Rossini's operas are unknown except for the overtures. It is too bad that we can't see more Rossini.

  2. bumming oungescThe Williow Song is in the Shakespeare play Othello and is a very old traditional song. It comes, with text and tune together, from the seventeenth century or even older.

    You can see the words and the melody here:;ttWILLOSNG.html

    This site says the first published edition known is in a lute book dated 1583.

    I don't know if either Rossini or Verdi ever saw the play or heard the old tune, but echoes of it seem to come through in both their much later versions.

  3. Charlotte,

    Thank you for pointing out the history of the Willow Song; I had known it dates to the time of Shakespeare, but it might be older.


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