Otello, ossia Il Moro di Venezia, dramma per musica in three acts to a libretto by Francesco Berio di Salsa, was first performed at the Teatro del Fondo, Naples, on 4th December 1816. The singers at the first performances were Andrea Nozzari (Otello), Isabella Colbran (Desdemona), Michele Benedetti (Elmiro), Giovanni David (Rodrigo), Giuseppe Ciccimarra (Iago), Maria Manzi (Emilia), Gaetano Chizzola (Doge), Mollo (Lucio).
Othello, captain of the Venetian fleet, is received with joy by the people on his return from a victorious campaign against the Turks; he is proud and satisfied when the Doge rewards him for his feat by conferring the citizenship of Venice upon him, but his thoughts soon turn to his beloved Desdemona. He has been forced to marry her in secret because of the opposition of her father, the senator Elmiro. Amongst those present only Iago and Rodrigo, to all appearances loyal lieutenants of Othello, fail to join in the universal jubilation in his honour: the former is jealous of the Moor’s increasing political power, and the latter, son of the Doge, is his rival in love. Rodrigo is left alone with Elmiro and asks him anxiously if Desdemona shows any sign of returning his love; Elmiro answers that his daughter is oppressed by some secret sorrow, and then he hurriedly leaves, causing Rodrigo to suspect that he means to give Desdemona to the Moor in marriage. Iago, who has overheard everything, joins Rodrigo and comforts him, revealing that he knows a way to turn the tide of the Moor’s good luck; he shows Rodrigo a letter in Desdemona’s handwriting, without however enlightening him as to what use he means to make of it. Rodrigo trusts Iago and together they look forward to winning the day.
In her father’s house, Desdemona tells Emilia, her confident, that she fears Othello believes her to be unfaithful. A love letter that she had written to him has fallen into her father’s hands, and when Elmiro assumed that the letter was addressed to Rodrigo she did not dare to tell him the truth; she fears that Othello might see it in some other man’s hands. The two ladies retire as Iago approaches: he had once payed court to Desdemona, but his love changed to hate when he found that she preferred a “vile African”. Rodrigo enters followed by Elmiro, who announces that he has chosen Rodrigo to be his daughter’s husband; Elmiro, too, is indignant that so many honours have been awarded the Moor, and he sees Desdemona’s marriage to Rodrigo as the best way to make a stand against his growing power. When Desdemona enters, he immediately tells her to come to a mysterious ceremony; she follows him, hesitantly, hoping that she is to witness the reconciliation of her father to Othello. But, in the presence of the whole court, Elmiro promises her in marriage to Rodrigo, and the desperate young woman attempts to oppose her father’s will. Othello suddenly enters and is startled into confessing that his life is bound to Desdemona’s by a solemn oath. Amongst the general indignation Elmiro curses his daughter and drags her back home, whilst Rodrigo and Othello angrily challenge one another.
Iago, che ha udito tutto, raggiunge Rodrigo e lo conforta rivelandogli di conoscere il modo per opporsi alle fortune del Moro: gli mostra infine una lettera di Desdemona senza però confessargli i suoi reali propositi. Rodrigo crede Iago suo amico ed entrambi esultano fiduciosi nel successo.
Nel palazzo paterno, Desdemona esprime ad Emilia, sua confidente, il timore che Otello la giudichi infedele. Una lettera d’amore a lui diretta era caduta infatti nelle mani di Elmiro che l’aveva creduta destinata a Rodrigo: Desdemona non ha osato confessargli la verità ed ora teme che Otello la scopra in mano d’altri. Le due donne si allontanano all’avvicinarsi di Iago: questi era stato pretendente di Desdemona, ma il suo amore si è tramutato in odio da quando la giovane gli ha preferito un “vile africano”. Sopraggiunge Rodrigo, seguito da Elmiro che gli dichiara di averlo scelto quale futuro sposo della figlia: anche Elmiro è indignato per tutti gli onori tributati al Moro e questo matrimonio gli appare la migliore soluzione per opporsi al suo crescente potere. Quando entra Desdemona, egli si affretta ad invitarla ad una misteriosa cerimonia: Desdemona, incerta, lo segue sperando che ciò significhi la avvenuta conciliazione tra il padre ed Otello. Ma, in presenza di tutta la corte, Elmiro la promette in sposa a Rodrigo: Desdemona disperata tenta di opporsi alla volontà paterna. Giunto improvvisamente, Otello rimane sgomento di fronte alla scena e non riesce a nascondere che un solenne giuramento lega ormai la sua vita a quella di Desdemona. Fra lo sdegno generale, Elmiro maledice la figlia trascinandola al proprio palazzo, mentre Rodrigo ed Otello si fronteggiano fieramente.
In Elmiro’s house, Rodrigo tries to prove the sincerity of his love by declaring that he is ready to comply with any wish Desdemona might express, and she begs him to help her to be reconciled with her father; finally, she confesses that she is Othello’s wife. The desperate Rodrigo, having sworn to be revenged, leaves Desdemona who rushes to warn Othello of this new danger.
Othello, tormented by the suspicion that Desdemona may prefer Rodrigo to himself, is joined near his house by Iago, who with great skill gradually strengthens the Moor’s suspicions, transforming them into a certainty by clever use of the letter that Desdemona was forced to pretend she had written to Rodrigo: this letter now appears to Othello to be an irrefutable proof of her guilt. When Iago has left, Othello meets Rodrigo who, having given up his idea of vengeance, is now disposed to offer the hand of friendship to the Moor for Desdemona’s sake; blinded by jealousy, Othello will not listen to him and challenges him to a duel. Desdemona rushes in, in vain; the Moor repulses her and goes off to fight, and, bewildered and hurt by his behaviour, the hapless girl falls fainting to the ground. Emilia revives her and she is quieted by the news that the duel has passed off without bloodshed, but her father comes on, upbraids her bitterly, and threatens new punishments; he vows in his wrath to make her expiate her guilty love.
In her chamber, Desdemona tells Emilia of her sufferings, and from the laguna they hear the sweet song of a gondolier, recalling to the unhappy girl the sad fate of her friend Isaura, who died of love. Desdemona senses that fate is preparing a similar end for her, and she tries to dissipate her sadness by singing her mournful «Willow song», which tells the unhappy tale of her friend. Some gusts of wind, harbingers of a storm, fill Desdemona with foreboding; she dismisses Emilia, says her prayers and goes to bed. Othello, armed with a dagger, enters the room through a secret door; he has decided to kill Desdemona but, seeing her lying on the bed, he is unable to strike her. Desdemona is awakened by a thunderclap and, after trying in vain to persuade him that she is innocent of the accusations he brings against her, she behaves courageously in the face of destiny and bares her breast to the blow. The Moor, maddened by jealously, tells her that he has ordered Iago to kill Rodrigo and, without further delay, stabs her to death whilst the storm rages outside. Knocking is heard at the door; Lucio, an officer of Othello’s, comes in to tell him that Iago, mortally wounded in his fight with Rodrigo, has confessed his foul deceptions. Othello is horror-struck. Elmiro and Rodrigo now come in to tell Othello that they have changed their minds about him, but by now it is too late: Othello shows them Desdemona’s body, then stabs himself to death.