Monday, October 15, 2012

Comparing "Othello" and Verdi's "Otello"

       After watching the clip from Oliver Parker’s “Othello” in class, I thought it might be interesting to see how another interpretation could help build on my understanding of the play.  Shakespeare’s “Othello” was adapted into an opera called “Otello” by Giuseppe Verdi, and a film version of that opera was made in 1986 by director Franco Zeffirelli.  Though Zeffirelli’s “Otello” is generally true to Shakespeare’s play in terms of plot, watching and listening to an opera is a totally different experience then seeing Shakespeare.  The plot in the opera and in the original play are almost identical, except that the film begins mis en scene in the second act of the play after the Turks have been defeated, cutting all the material involving Desdemona’s father.  It’s important to note that the character Otello, played by Placido Domingo, is played in blackface; which despite being customary in performances of “Otello”, is not quite something I expected of a film made in the late eighties.*

The characters in the film seemed to fluctuate between extreme emotions, singing either for rage, sorrow or intense happiness.  For example, Otello tells Desdemona as they lay in their bed on the eve of their wedding: “My joy is so fierce I fear I will suffocate”.  This film portrays Otello as a being a very passionate and sensitive man, and though his rank is mentioned, much less attention is paid to affairs of state than in the original play and far more screentime is given to scenes between Otello and Desdemona.  This version, I think, makes Othello’s quick turn to jealousy and rage over his wife’s suspected infidelity a bit more conceivable, as even his happiness seems somewhat histrionic.
One of the most notable scenes in the film, is when Iago soliloquizes about his relationship with God.  This scene, which takes place early on in the film, seems tied to the scene in Act I of Shakespeare's play where Iago talks about how he justifies his actions ("Heaven is my judge..." I.i.41-65).  In the film, Iago is represented as a character who believes his actions to be determined by his nature, as can be seen in the line, "I believe in a cruel god who created me in his image and in my wrath i speak his name"; Iago stands in the middle of a large dome with an oculus directly overhead, and he stares up into the light, as if speaking to God directly.  He then moves into another room and stands in front of a crucifix, saying, "I believe as firmly as any widow piously saying her prayers that all the evil i think and do was decreed me by faith”.

*Though, apparently, productions of "Otello" have used blackface as recently as last year. Here's the link:


Christina Lee said...

It is always interesting when I see how many times Shakespeare’s plays are readapted to fit other forms of genre. However, this is the first time in which I have seen Othello, being transformed into an opera. Although it is a commendable feat to take when reformatting a classic Shakespeare play, this much editing is troublesome. Like you had stated, the plot is the same, but you lose almost all the back story of Othello and Desdemona. You do not hear his soliloquy about being a Moore, but one that deserves to be with Desdemona. You do not view that determination of not being moved even when her father goes against her. But most importantly you do not see the building of Iago’s character. Iago is THE VILLAIN he has to be cunning. He has to seduce and cruelly twist the audience through his plots and schemes, taking that away and focusing on the puke-inducing love of Othello and Desdemona is boring. I have scene operas in which they have this similar plot and it is amazing to watch and hear, but it is truly boring when reading the actual text. Furthermore, you lose a lot of Iago when you take away the reason of why he is doing all of this to Othello from Act I. Even if you do not truly misrepresent him by stating that he is just evil by nature, you still misrepresent his intent and reasons to why he has this rage against Othello.

Cyrus Mulready said...

This is very interesting, Maeve; I am not familiar with the film but am struck by two of your descriptions here. First, the difference in introducing a kind of motivation for Iago. Shakespeare never gives us something as concrete as this idea that there is something in the nature of Iago that spurs his actions. Second, and related, is the sense of emotion that comes across in opera, and this points to the shifts in meaning that happen when genres change. Many of Shakespeare's plays have been adapted to opera, perhaps because these characters lend themselves to such frank expressions of emotion.