Against a backdrop of military confrontation, an emotional drama unfolds that ends up driving the successful general Otello mad. The victim of Jago, in whose devious plots he becomes ensnared, Otello murders his beloved wife before killing himself. Verdi’s dramma lirico thrillingly retells Shakespeare’s play with a devastating score that propels the protagonists to their downfall.
A storm is raging at sea off the coast of Cyprus. It threatens to destroy the Venetian navy and its commander, Otello, who are in the midst of a sea battle with the Ottomans. But Otello braves the elements and arrives on land to announce his victory. He makes his way to his wife, Desdemona. One voice is absent from the general rejoicing – that of Jago, Otello’s ensign, who is hatching a plan of revenge because Otello has named Cassio as his captain. Jago had coveted the post, and now uses the victory celebrations to embark on a large-scale intrigue intended to destroy Otello. Jago gets Cassio drunk and incites him to fight with his own confidant, Rodrigo. Montano, the former Governor of Cyprus, is injured in the process. The brawl disturbs Otello and Desdemona. When Otello emerges, he demotes Cassio. Otello is a foreigner, but his wife, Desdemona, belongs to a wealthy Venetian family. Together they recall the early days of their love for one another. They pray for each other.
Jago convinces Cassio that he supports him, and advises him to ask Desdemona to intercede for him with Otello. Steeped in sombre thoughts, Jago sows in Otello the suspicion that his wife might be having an affair with Cassio. This mistrust of Desdemona is briefly dispelled when she appears to Otello as pure as a saint. But when she later asks Otello to show mercy to Cassio, his doubts return. He indignantly casts Desdemona’s handkerchief to the ground when she tries to dab his brow to calm him. Desdemona’s maid Emilia picks it up. Jago, her husband, takes it from her. Jago’s intrigues are bearing considerable fruit. The jealous Otello demands that he show him proof of a relationship between his wife and Cassio. Instead of offering such proof straightaway, Jago tells of how Cassio one night spoke in his sleep of a secret love affair, and called out Desdemona’s name. Jago also mentions having seen Cassio holding a fine handkerchief – Desdemona’s.For Otello, this suffices as proof. He is now convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity and swears bitter vengeance, together with Jago.
When Venetian envoys are announced to Otello, Jago uses the moment to get him to observe Cassio more closely. Again Desdemona begs her husband to forgive Cassio, at which Otello demands her to show the handkerchief that once had been his gift to her. Because she cannot give it to him, he loses his composure and accuses her scornfully of being a whore. Jago engages Cassio in a conversation about his love life, with Otello eavesdropping in at Jago’s behest. Cassio pulls out a handkerchief that he assumes is an anonymous love token from a woman, for he does not know whence it came. But Otello cannot hear this information. He recognizes only the handkerchief that was his proof of love to Desdemona, and he is now certain of his wife’s infidelity. While the envoys approach, Otello decides out of sheer hatred to kill Desdemona. He names Jago his new captain. Lodovico brings Otello the news that he is being called back to Venice, and that Cassio will remain as Governor of Cyprus in his stead. Jago inconspicuously urges Rodrigo to murder Cassio so that Otello will remain on Cyprus and Desdemona with him, for Rodrigo secretly desires to possess her. After Otello has cast his wife to the ground in full view of everyone, he curses her in his rage, then collapses himself. Jago is triumphant.
Plagued by presentiments of death, Desdemona bids farewell to Emilia, and prays. Otello appears and demands that she beg God for forgiveness for her sins. Otello is determined on his course of action and now kills his wife. Emilia, alarmed, brings Otello the news that Cassio has killed Rodrigo. She discovers the tragic murder of her mistress. Otello confesses to killing Desdemona. The extent of Jago’s machinations is revealed by Emilia, Cassio and Montano, and Jago himself is unmasked. He flees. Otello kills himself