Verdi and Puccini

Verdi’s Otello: Documents in the Archive

The success story of the Ricordi publishing house with the “blockbuster” Verdi continues after the unification of 1861. The archive documents the contracts entered into, the reprints, the single issues and the performances. After the first performance of Aida (1871), for 17 years Verdi cares less about composing and more about his country estate at Sant’Agata in Busseto, establishing a retirement home for musicians in Milan, the cultivation of friendships and contract negotiations for his operas. The collaboration with Arrigo Boito, the librettist and composer — a collaboration stimulated and guided by Giulio Ricordi — results in new impetus for Verdi’s opera creation. In his youth, Boito belonged to the “Scapigliati” (“the Disheveled”) artistic movement that broke with inherited tradition and developed new literary forms. Verdi always had a great admiration for Shakespeare’s plays: indeed, he refers to the bard as “Papà Shakespeare”.

Following on an idea proposed by Giulio Ricordi, Boito talked Verdi into the undertaking of Otello, an opera that is comprehensively documented in the archive, and is therefore a good example of the importance of the holdings for research. Verdi’s enthusiasm for the material is authentic and mainly due to his love for Shakespeare. He repeatedly refers to the English text itself. His dispute with Boito over the libretto is documented in letters. Shakespeare’s dramaturgy corresponds to what Verdi means by the concept of “inventare il vero” — “inventing the truth”. The characters of Shakespeare’s plays are for him “vero” in the sense of “verosimile” (translated as “probable” or “true”). He prefers the principle of “inventare il vero” to “copiare il vero”.

Verdi’s Otello can be extensively and vividly studied using the documents in the archive. It begins with the original contract between Verdi and Ricordi, dated December 17, 1888, witnessed by a Milanese notary called Giovanni Bertolè, which transfers the rights to the music and the libretto for a fee of 200.000 lire, graded by percentages and partial payouts. Attached to the agreement is a document in which Arrigo Boito transfers the rights to the libretto to Verdi for the relatively low fee of 4.000 lire. The autograph score can be studied on the screen as well, as there is a complete digital version available: but whether you look at it on the screen or in the original, what is striking is Verdi’s austere-looking notation, the rounded, closed, unobtrusive script and structure. A separate volume contains the ballet written for a planned performance at the Paris Opera, also the subject of correspondence between Giulio Ricordi and Verdi in May 1887. An introductory note to the autograph of the ballet shows Verdi’s sense of dry wit: „Subito al principio all’attacco della tromba dovrebbe comparire un gruppo di Schiave turche che ballano svogliatamente e a malumore perché schiave…” – “Immediately after the introduction of the trumpet, a group of Turkish slaves should appear, who should dance listlessly and without joy, because they are slaves…” Some scores that were rented to theaters include conductors’ amendments that were, at times, approved and adopted in later editions.

The archive contains different editions of the libretto for Otello. The copy that Giulio Ricordi took with him during the première of the opera at La Scala contains notes about the applause of the audience for each scene, and naturally, the bravura pieces are the most popular: the choir at the beginning of the first act, when Otello returns victorious — “Fuoco di gioia” (bonfires), Iago’s “drinking song” in Act I during which he gets his competitor Cassio drunk, initiating the intrigue, the “oath scene” between Otello and Iago to avenge Desdemona’s alleged deceit at the end of Act II, and Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” in Act IV, which even includes a note that the piece was encored. At the end of the libretto text, Ricordi notes the exact order of curtain-calls. Furthermore, the archive preserves various foreign-language versions of the libretto in French, Czech, German and Portuguese.

Continuing with the documentation of Otello, we come next to the stage and costume designs for the première. The costumes were designed by the artist and illustrator Alfredo Edel (1856—1912), costume designer at La Scala from 1880 to 1890. The original watercolors are in the archive’s holdings, as well as the figurines and the scenes. Who could possibly resist the charms of these unique documents?

The volumes of “disposizioni sceniche” (production books adopted from the French tradition of “mise-en-scène”) are a special feature in regard to Otello. For Otello we see these “stage directions” in the archive for the première in a transcript by Giulio Ricordi. They go into minute detail about how to build and arrange the stage structures, what props are to be used, what movements the singers and choir execute, and the ensuing tableaus. Equally informative to the area of production history in this context are the “tavole di attrezzatura”, plans for the props, witch the archive contains for works including Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (drawn by Giuseppe Pilanti) and Turandot (by Umberto Brunelleschi).
Similari “complete” documentino can be compiled from the archive inventories for other important works of musical theater: for Un Ballo in maschera, Aida and Falstaff by Verdi, La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly by Puccini, for Mefistofele and Nerone by Boito, for La leggenda di Sakùntala by Franco Alfano and for Iris by Pietro Mascagni. In this way, the genesis and impact of the phenomenon of opera, between art and commerce, as a reflection of artistic and social developments, as a hybrid art form whose products are repeatedly reinterpreted and updated in modern opera houses, are cleary brought to life by the archived documents.