The opera Verdi called ‘Iago’

This season marks the start of the Royal Danish Opera’s celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial and the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare (next April), and what better way to kick off the festivities than with the Italian composer’s operatic masterpiece Otello. The large-scale celebration will see the production of Verdi’s three outstanding Shakespearean operas – Otello, Falstaff and Macbeth – with each one bearing the unique stamp of three very different directors.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy of 1603, Othello, the Moor of Venice. The penultimate opera of one of the great Italian composers of the 19th century was first performed in Milan in 1887 and has captivated audiences ever since. Verdi condensed the popular drama into four scenes, dispensing with minor characters, but retaining the all-important elements of pure unadulterated evil, sexual jealousy, murder and suicide. The opera largely remains true to the original plot of Shakespeare’s play, revolving around tragic hero Otello and his marriage to the fair Desdemona. Enter Iago, evil personified, who jealous of Otello’s success spins a web of lies around the unsuspecting Desdemona, driving her husband into a jealous rage with fateful consequences.

Shakespeare’s great tragedy had been drawing gasps from audiences for over 250 years before being reworked for opera, and Verdi clearly saw the potential of the play as a music drama. Certainly, from the moment that the curtains open to a thunder of percussion and brass as the Cypriot crowd look anxiously to their Moorish defender, to the final orchestral strains of the poignant ‘kiss’ theme, it is arguably the marriage of theatre and music that makes Otello so spellbinding. What is lacking in Shakespeare’s poetry is made up for in Verdi’s masterful score, which offers audiences an electrifying, multi-sensory experience.

Prolific young director Nicola Raab has a quality cast to work with here, featuring young American tenor Raymond Very in the title role, accompanied by leading Danish soprano Ann Petersen as Desdemona and Sweden’s John Lundgren as the nefarious Iago. Lundgren is particularly well-cast, enjoying a reputation as one of the ‘bad boys’ of opera, typically lending his powerful baritone voice to the most villainous of operatic characters. And boy is Iago bad. In his letters, Verdi described him as “the devil who sets everything in motion”, and he had initially intended to name the opera after him. A character who commits dastardly deeds like they’re going out of fashion and remains remorseless from start to finish, Iago is certainly one of the biggest baddies on the block and is riveting to watch as a result.

While the theme of racism looms large in Shakespeare’s play, Verdi’s Otello is relatively uninterested in race. Granted, there are a few references in Otello’s duet with Desdemona about how she has “made my darkness a glory”, but there is certainly none of the vitriol that characterises Iago’s racist slurs in the original play. Even so, it still comes as something of a surprise that this production casts Very, a non-black opera singer, as Otello. Despite it being unacceptable for a white actor to play Othello in 21st century theatre, opera continues to perpetuate a tradition of having white Otellos, with singers often ‘blacking up’ for the part, as was the case with Placido Domingo, and more recently, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko at the Royal Opera House in London. By casting Very, it seems that the Royal Danish Opera is not that concerned about whether a black or white singer plays Otello, and why not? Very is a top-class opera singer and should interpret the role as well as any. Just hopefully without the need for body-paint.

The Royal Danish Orchestra will be conducted by the internationally-renowned Pier Giorgio Morandi, and will be accompanied by the Royal Danish Opera Chorus, the Danish Boys’ Choir, and the Danish Girls’ Choir. The opera will be performed against the backdrop of the stunning Opera House. Come one, come all, for what promises to be a bracing, powerful start to the autumn season.


Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, Cph K; starts Sat, ends Nov 23, performances 20:00 (unless stated) on Sat (19:30), Wed, Oct 1 (19:30), Oct 5, Oct 9, Oct 13 (15:00), Oct 18, Oct 22, Nov 12, Nov 15 (19:30), Nov 19, Nov 23 (19:30); tickets 125-895kr,; duration 170 mins including interval; sung in Italian with Danish supertitles

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