Arsen Soghomonyan (photo: Ira Polyarnaya)

Zubin Mehta conducts “Otello”

The 75-year-old Giuseppe Verdi once again reached a new artistic level with Otello. None of his other operas is as compelling or has such dramatic force, right up to the murderous finale. Following the performances at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, the Berliner Philharmoniker present their interpretation of this dark, expressive score to the Berlin public together with a cast of prominent singers and conductor Zubin Mehta.

Berliner Philharmoniker

Zubin Mehta conductor

Arsen Soghomonyan tenor

Sonya Yoncheva soprano (Desdemona)

Luca Salsi baritone (Jago)

Anna Malavasi mezzo-soprano (Emilia)

Francesco Demuro tenor (Cassio)

Gregory Bonfatti tenor (Roderigo)

Giovanni Furlanetto bass (Montano)

Federico Sacchi bass (Lodovico)

Mathias Tönges bass

Rundfunkchor Berlin

Gijs Leenaars chorus master

Childrens' Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Christian Lindhorst chorus master

Giuseppe Verdi


Dates and Tickets

Thu, 25 Apr 2019, 19:00

Philharmonie | Introduction: 18:00

Serie A


Giuseppe Verdi’s Shakespeare opera Otello, premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1887, starts with an unparalleled musical bang: when the curtain rises, a storm depicted by the most sophisticated instrumental and vocal means rages off the coast of Cyprus – and already hints at the deadly passions that are ignited in the course of the drama. Sixteen years had passed since the premiere of Aida, which was composed for the opening of the Suez Canal, when Verdi once again returned to composing operas with Otello. Devastating criticism had meant that Verdi – apart from revisions of Simon Boccanegra and Don Carlos – no longer wanted to compose other stage works. “I would just hear again that I was not able to write and was a follower of Wagner,” the composer explained in a letter in 1878: “A fine result! After almost 40 years of musicianship, to end up as an imitator.” Only after the publisher Giulio Ricordi proposed a collaboration with the writer and composer Arrigo Boito did Verdi consider a new opera project. Seven years of intensive work together was to pass between Boito’s first sketch for Otello and Verdi’s completion of the compositional work.

Verdi ultimately decided against the original idea of naming their joint work “Iago” after the sinister villain of Shakespeare’s play: “He is (it is true) the demon who moves everything,” argued the composer, “but Otello is the one who acts. He loves, is jealous, kills and kills himself.” It is undoubtedly also thanks to his librettist that Verdi was able to open a new chapter in the history of Italian opera with Otello, for Boito, with a text that broke away from the traditions of Italian librettistics of that time, first created the possibilities for Verdi’s musically innovative setting of the Shakespearean jealousy drama.

A few days after staged performances at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Zubin Mehta, present two concert performances of Verdi’s late work at the Philharmonie with the conductor and a top-class ensemble of singers. The choral role, which ranges from the stormy beginning of the opera to lyrical passages, is taken by the Rundfunkchor Berlin, an established musical partner of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

About the music

A Stroke of Luck in Operatic History

Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito’s Otello

Under the spell of Shakespeare

“One can’t escape one’s destiny,” Arrigo Boito commented tersely when Giuseppe Verdi wrote him in 1884 that he had begun work on Otello. “By a law of intellectual affinity that tragedy of Shakespeare’s is predestined for you.” With unerring dramatic instinct, Boito had written a libretto which adapted the original text to the demands of opera and Verdi’s artistry, while retaining the Shakespearean spirit. For one thing, Boito shortened the story, not only drastically reducing the length of the text but also completely omitting the first act of the five-act tragedy, which outlines the prologue to the story and is set in Venice. For another, he had no qualms about changing the stage “architecture” of the drama. In keeping with the composer’s wish that the flow of events be as continuous as possible, he tightened up the plot and sharpened the scenic contrasts.

Each of the four remaining sections of this drama of jealousy has a single setting and a clearly defined dramaturgical function. The first act abruptly transports us to a stormy night near the castle of the general of the Venetian fleet in Cyprus. It presents the three protagonists of the opera – Otello, Desdemona and Iago – and at the same time lays the foundation for the tragedy that follows. The two middle acts take place during the day in two different rooms of the castle and depict the gradual downfall of the title figure. Iago first succeeds in arousing Otello’s jealousy, then steadily fuels it with his malicious game. The moral poisoning of the hero continues, and his descent into irrationality also becomes publicly visible. After making up his mind to kill Desdemona because of her supposed unfaithfulness, with uncontrolled rage he throws her to the ground in front of the Venetian ambassador. The last act is set in the intimate space of Desdemona’s bedchamber, where the inevitable catastrophe takes place in the darkness of night: Otello strangles his wife, recognizes his delusion, then kills himself.

Otello or Iago

The collaboration between Verdi and Boito, which later would also result in Falstaff, is rightly considered a stroke of luck in operatic history. In the case of Otello, it is documented in just under 50 letters which the composer and his librettist, who was thirty years younger than Verdi, exchanged between 1879 and 1887. They not only provide fascinating insights into the origins of the composition, the working process and the not always relaxed relationship of the two artists but also discuss key dramaturgical questions. For example, ten months before finally completing the opera, Verdi wrote to Boito: “They talk, and they write me always about Iago!!! It seems useless for me to keep replying, ‘Otello,notIago, is not finished!!’ . . . – He is (this is true) the demon who moves everything, but Otello is the one who acts: He loves, is jealous, kills, andkills himself. And for my part it would seem hypocrisy not to call it Otello.”

The controversy over the appropriate title for the opera, in which the composer and his librettist took different positions at times, draws our attention to the strained relationship between the two male protagonists. Verdi und Boito agreed on the role of Iago as manipulator, mastermind and agent of the drama. At the same time, they both emphasized that he should not be understood or portrayed as a “demon in human form” but rather – as Boito expressed it – a “master of deception”. Iago is able to change his “image” depending on the situation and conceal his cynicism and wickedness from others behind his (also outward) magnetism. He is “easy and jovial with Cassio, ironic with Rodrigo. He is apparently good-humoured, respectful and humbly devoted towards Otello, brutal and threatening with Emilia”. He only shows his true character in the nihilistic “Credo” at the beginning of the second act, whose text inspired Verdi to what is perhaps the most daring music of his entire oeuvre.

Whereas the dramatic attractiveness of the figure of Iago lies in his complexity and manipulative power, Otello – as Verdi pointed out in the letter quoted – is the character who acts and, at the same time, undergoes a radical transformation. The depth of his fall is striking. At the beginning of the opera, the general of the Venetian Republic seems to be a powerful hero, wise commander and passionate lover. Overcome with raging jealousy, during the subsequent acts he experiences a loss of reality and self-alienation: “He was of sound mind, now he raves wildly, he was strong, now he is broken, he had a sense of right and wrong and integrity, now he commits a crime” (Boito). Negotiating this complex process of development, which Verdi brilliantly depicts in music, and the reversal of emotions connected with it vocally and dramatically is one of the great challenges of the role.

Horror rather than transfiguration

No other Italian opera composer of the 19th century confronted death as forcefully and relentlessly in his stage works as Verdi. “Opera must make people weep, feel horrified, die through singing,” he declared at the beginning of his career. He achieved this with unparalleled success in the fourth act of Otello, in which the orchestra plays a decisive role. The introduction to the act, played by the woodwinds, begins with a melancholy tune in the English horn, symbolizing Desdemona’s pain, isolation and hopelessness. Moreover, it anticipates the melody of the profoundly sad “Willow Song”, which Desdemona once heard from her mother’s maid and sings after a brief dialogue with Emilia. In this instance as well, Verdi made fundamental changes during the creative process and composed a vocal part which is extremely demanding for the performer. In a letter to Franco Faccio, the conductor of the premiere, the composer commented that the singer “like the Holy Trinity, must produce three voices, one for Desdemona, one for Barbara (the maid) and a third voice for the ‘Salce, salce, salce’ (Willow, willow, willow)”.

When one hears the melancholy sounds of the English horn at the beginning of the fourth act, one naturally thinks of the shepherd’s song with which this instrument opens the third act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. We can only speculate as to whether it was actually a deliberate reminiscence of Verdi’s German antagonist. A comparison of the two works is interesting, however, because it increases our awareness of the fundamental differences. Wagner presents Isolde’s death as a process of redemption and transfiguration which brings the longed-for union with Tristan. Verdi, on the other hand, emphasizes through musical means the impossibility of “reconciliation” predestined in the literary source. Although immediately before his death Otello again takes up the kiss motif “in a husky sotto voce” (“Un bacio ... un bacio ancora ...”) (a kiss ... another kiss), which is heard at the climax of the great love duet in the first act. But his voice breaks off before reaching the final note, and the dark major chord which follows in the lowest possible instrumental register demonstrates unequivocally that the death of the tragic hero does not bring redemption but is rather the final confirmation of his fall.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Phyllis Anderson


Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. From 1985 until 2017 he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich.
Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. In February 2019, he was named honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in gratitude for his long association with the orchestra. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in February/ March this year in works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Varèse and Eötvös.
Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Arsen Soghomonyan, born in Yerevan, Armenia in 1983, trained as a baritone in his home town at the Barkhudaryan Music School before studying under Rafael Hakobyants at the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan from 2000 to 2006. During this time, he made his debut as Fiorello in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia with the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Eduard Topchyan. Other engagements took him to the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Yerevan, where he sang many other baritone roles. In the following years, Arsen Soghomonyan became the leading baritone of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre. There, he made his tenor debut as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca in March 2017 before appearing at the Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara, Mexico as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Soghomonyan, who has also appeared as a guest artist at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and has worked with such conductors as Vladimir Spivakov, Tugan Sokhiev and Alberto Zedda, was honoured with the State Prize of the Republic of Armenia in 2006. Moreover, in addition to numerous other awards, he won first prize at the International Pavel Lisitsian Singing Competition in Vladikavkaz. In the current season, Arsen Soghomonyan makes his debut as Don José (Carmen) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as Don Alvaro (La forza del destino) at Oper Frankfurt, as Manrico (Il trovatore) at the Teatro Regio di Torino, and Roberto (Le Villi) with the London company “Opera Rara” and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In these concerts, the tenor now also makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Sonya Yoncheva, born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1983, studied piano and singing in her home town and then graduated with a master’s degree in singing at the Conservatoire de musique de Genéve. Following a series of spectacular debuts at the world’s major opera houses, the soprano is now one of the most sought-after singers of her generation and is internationally renowned for leading roles such as Cherubini’s Médée, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Puccini’s Tosca, Desdemona (Otello), Violetta (La traviata), Élisabeth de Valois (Don Carlo) and Mimì (La Bohème). Performances in the 2018/2019 season are taking her to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, the Bavarian State Opera Munich, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, the Opéra Bastille in Paris, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Sonya Yoncheva also recently appeared at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Zurich Opera House. The soprano is a graduate of the William Christie academy “Le Jardin des Voix”. Early music and the Baroque are an important focus in her broad repertoire. For example, she appeared in the title role of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Salzburg Festival, Phani/Zima (Les Indes galantes) and Dido (Dido and Aeneas) on tour with William Christie through Europe, Russia and the US, and as Giunone (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria) at the Teatro Real and as Cleopatra (Giulio Cesare) in Versailles, plus – under the direction of Emmanuelle Haïm – as Poppea (L’incoronazione di Poppea) and Agrippina (Agrippina) in Lille and Dijon. Sonya Yoncheva has won numerous international competitions, including Plácido Domingo’s Operalia (2010). She now makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Luca Salsi was born in San Secondo Parmense. He studied at the Conservatorio di Musica Arrigo Boito in Parma under Lucetta Bizza and then perfected his technique under Carlo Meliciani. Winner of the international Viotti Competition in Vercelli, his career quickly took him to the most prestigious opera houses and major festivals, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, Washington National Opera, Los Angeles Opera, the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin, the Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the opera houses in Rome, Parma, Naples, Verona and Palermo, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Teatro Real in Madrid. The baritone has worked with conductors such as Riccardo Muti, James Levine, James Conlon, Plácido Domingo, Gustavo Dudamel and Nicola Luisotti, as well as directors Robert Carsen, Hugo De Ana, David McVicar, Antony Minghella, Werner Herzog and Franco Zeffirelli. Luca Salsi’s repertoire includes roles such as Enrico (Lucia di Lammermoor), Sharpless (Madama Butterfly), Marcello (La Bohème), Figaro (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Giorgio Germont (La traviata), Conte di Luna (Il trovatore), Don Carlo (La forza del destino) and the title roles in Rigoletto, Nabucco and Macbeth. In 2017, Luca Salsi took on the role of Gérard in Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier at the opening of the season at La Scala. In 2018, when the Verdi Festival opened its doors in Parma, he was seen in the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth, which he also sang at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice at the start of the 2018/2019 season. Luca Salsi now makes his debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Anna Malavasi, born in Mantua, studied piano and singing at the Conservatorio Rossini in Pesaro. She also attended master classes given by Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto and Ileana Cotrubaş. Engagements regularly take the mezzo-soprano to renowned opera houses – such as in her signature role of Carmen (Georges Bizet), which Anna Malavasi has performed in, among others places, Bologna, Lübeck, Riga and Masada. The singer has also appeared as Azucena (Il trovatore) in Palermo, in Bologna, at the Ravenna Festival, and at the Royal Opera House in Oman. At the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, she sang the role of Fenna in performances of Verdi’s Nabucco in Rome conducted by Riccardo Muti, which she also sang at the Teatro Regio in Parma, at the Opéra de Monaco and at the Arena di Verona. Also under the direction of Riccardo Muti, Anna Malavasi appeared in Verdi’s Macbeth at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome and at the Salzburg Festival. The singer’s repertoire includes roles such as Un musico (ManonLescaut), Maddalena (Rigoletto), Tigrana (Edgar) and Suzuki (Madama Butterfly). In 2016, she also appeared in Puccini’s Il trittico (as Frugola, La Suora Zelatrice and Maestro Spinelloccio) in a production by Damiano Michieletto under the musical direction of Daniele Rustioni. Recently, she sang the role of Flora in Verdi’s La Traviata in a spectacular co-production by fashion designer Valentino and Academy Award winner Sofia Coppola. She now makes her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

With around 60 concerts annually, the Rundfunkchor Berlin(Berlin Radio Choir) is one of the world’s foremost choruses. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound have made it the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim and a regular guest at major festivals – including a residency at New York’s White Light Festival in 2016. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards, document its work. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001–2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2019 in staged productions of Bach’s St John Passion conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Arsen Soghomonyan (photo: Ira Polyarnaya)

Sonya Yoncheva (photo: Victor Santia)

Zubin Mehta on Verdi’s “Otello”

For classical music fans aged 28 and under

Classical music fans aged 28 and under can buy tickets for the concert on 28 April 2019 online for 18 euros.

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