Verdi had a great advantage over Rossini’s Otello (1816) in composing his own Otello (1887). It was an advantage, even, over his earlier Shakespearean opera, Macbeth (1847). Verdi had as his librettist, by the 1880s, Arrigo Boito, a highly cultured poet and musician, a man as serious about getting to the true meaning of Shakespeare as was Verdi himself. Besides the two works Boito created with Verdi (Otello and Falstaff), he wrote a libretto for Amleto (Hamlet), composed by his friend and fellow musician Franco Faccio. He also translated and condensed Antony and Cleopatra for performance by his lover, the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse.
The later collaboration between Verdi and Boito could not have been expected from their early contacts, which had created enmity between them. Boito came from a talented and aristocratic family. His father, Silvestro, painted miniatures of Pope Gregory XVI in the Vatican. His mother was a Polish countess. His older brother Camillo, an architect, historian, and novelist, was for forty-eight years a professor of architecture at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.
Arrigo shared his brother’s wide culture and high aspirations as a theorist of the arts. Early on, the brothers were Scapigliati (“The Rumpled”), members of the Milan circle of young writers, painters, and musicians who scoffed at older Italian styles (including that of Verdi). The Scapigliati enjoyed a radical lifestyle, idolizing Baudelaire, communing over hashish and absinthe. Some of them, including their best-known poet, Emilio Praga, died young of alcoholism or suicide. One of the Scapigliati, Giuseppe Giacosa, drew on his young artistic days when he cowrote the libretto for Puccini’s La Bohème. Clarina Maffei, who had the most famous and influential salon in Milan, welcomed the Scapigliati to her home, in what Tom Wolfe would later call an exercise in radical chic. This got her, temporarily, into trouble with her old friend Verdi.
Verdi had been close to Clarina’s ex-husband, Andrea, who had helped him with Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto for Macbeth. In 1862, drawing on her extensive Parisian connections, Clarina suggested to Verdi, who was in Paris, that he get a text for his Inno delle Nazioni (Hymn of the Nations, to be sung at the International Exhibition in London) from the twenty-year-old Boito, who had just arrived in Paris. Verdi knew nothing of Boito at the time, but he was in a hurry to get the irksome London commission off his hands, so he accepted her suggestion. Only later did he become aware of what he considered the disturbing views of the Scapigliati, which made him deeply hostile to them.
Boito and Franco Faccio, as students at the Milan Conservatory, conceived the ambition of remaking Italian music, taking their inspiration from the north, from Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and Wagner. They condemned the Italian opera of their day as more interested in formulas than in form. They collaborated at the conservatory on two patriotic cantatas, Il Quattro Giugno (The Fourth of June, 1860) and Le Sorelle d’Italia (The Sisters of Italy, 1861). They graduated with prize money for travel abroad, which took Boito to Paris and the composition of Verdi’s Inno. Back in Italy, Franco Faccio composed his first opera, I Profughi Fiamminghi (The Flemish Refugees), to a libretto by Emilio Praga, which received its debut at La Scala in 1863, when Faccio was only twenty-three. At a banquet honoring this event, Boito read a boastful ode to his promising schoolmate, “All’Arte Italiana.” It contained lines that earned an ill fame:
He may already be born
who will raise again an art,
chaste and severe, on the altar
slimed like a brothel wall.
Unfortunately for all concerned, this brash poem was gossiped about and printed in the Museo di Famiglia, where Verdi read it and took it as an insult to his own body of work. In a sarcastic letter to his publisher, Tito Ricordi, he wrote: “If among others I, too, have soiled the altar, as Boito says, let him clean it, and I will be the first to light a little candle.” Over and over, for years, Verdi bitterly recalled the “slimed altar” line in his letters. As Frank Walker writes in The Man Verdi, “Was there ever a composer so sensitive to criticism, so tenacious in rancor?” It did not help that Boito’s music teacher and patron was Alberto Mazzucato, then the principal conductor at La Scala, whom Verdi despised.
When Clarina Maffei persisted in promoting her young friends to Verdi, he broke off relations with her, and his wife had to scan incoming letters to intercept those that would anger him by praising the young upstarts. Meanwhile, the upstarts kept starting up. In 1865, Faccio premiered his second opera, Amleto, to Boito’s libretto from Shakespeare. The same year, Boito and Praga launched their critical journal, Il Figaro, and Boito and Faccio joined Garibaldi’s guerrilla fighters against the Austrians. In 1868, Boito conducted at La Scala the premiere of Mefistofele, for which he had been both librettist and composer. It was a disastrous failure. Only seven years later, in a radically altered form, did it achieve success at Bologna.
Faccio, meanwhile, had given up composing after the failure of his revised Amleto in 1871. He concentrated on conducting, since he was meeting with particular success at leading Verdi operas in Germany and Scandinavia—so much so that a softened Verdi chose him to conduct the Italian premiere of Aida in 1872. Boito, too, was doing less composing, though he continued to work, with dogged disappointment, on his second opera—never finished—Nerone. He continued to write librettos for other composers—for Coronaro’s Un Tramonto (1873), Catalani’s La Falce (1875), Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (1876), San Germano’s Semira (withdrawn in rehearsal), Bottesini’s Ero e Leandro (1879), Carlos Gomes’s Maria Tudor (1879, finishing a libretto begun by his late colleague Emilio Praga), Pick-Mangiagalli’s Basi e Bote (1887, though not performed till 1927), Dominicetti’s Iram (not composed).
But the life-changing work on which Boito’s fame would rest began in 1879, when Giulio Ricordi got Verdi to start considering, slowly, a collaboration with Boito on Otello. Before that project could be truly launched, there was a trial run as Boito revised the libretto of Verdi’s 1857 opera, Simon Boccanegra. The surviving Scapigliati, who had shed their youthful cheekiness, had gradually been joining the ranks of Verdi admirers. Ricordi, who was the same age as Boito and Faccio, had been a young musical theorist in their circle, but as he grew older he took on the responsibilities of his father Tito’s publishing house and became a trusted business adviser to Verdi. He worked with Verdi’s ever-diplomatic wife, Giuseppina, to coax him into looking at Boito’s libretto for Otello (at this stage called Jago). Mutual respect grew in the men as they worked together on Simon Boccanegra.
Simon had not been a success at its premiere, but it has rich music and resonant political themes, and Verdi hoped to salvage the best parts of it. Ricordi kept urging him to revise it, though Verdi thought that Aida and the Requiem Mass would be his crowning (and final) works. He had grown to hate the endless battles that were involved in getting the right singers, conductors, and productions for his ever-more-demanding works. But Boito brought fresh eyes to the subject of Simon Boccanegra. He argued that the characters had to become more “living,” that there should be a dramatic Council Scene, and that the action should be more comprehensible. Verdi resisted sinking too much energy into large revisions, but Boito cajoled and suggested, reinvigorating the maestro’s creative force. The revised work, conducted by Faccio at La Scala, was a success in 1881. Victor Maurel (the future Jago) sang the role of Boccanegra, Francesco Tamagno (the future Otello) that of Gabriele Adorno. Thus was assembled the team (Verdi, Boito, Ricordi, Faccio, Maurel, Tamagno) that would triumph, six years later, at the premiere of Otello.
Verdi and Boito grew in affection for each other over the years of their collaboration. Verdi at first would not even let Ricordi bring Boito to visit him, since he feared a commitment to new work. But composer and librettist soon came to love and seek each other’s company. In 1885, Boito was still writing him: “My desire to see you is great, but the fear I have of disturbing you is equally great.” Verdi answered: “You could never disturb us! Come, and you will give great pleasure to me and to Peppina, too.”
Nonetheless, dealing with Verdi was always a ticklish prospect. Anything could make him shy from a major undertaking in his seventies. When Boito’s Mefistofele received a successful Naples production in 1884, he was given a celebratory banquet at which he spoke with enthusiasm about the Otello libretto he was working on. The newspaper Il Piccolo interpreted his words to mean that he wished he could compose the opera himself. Verdi read another report of the banquet in the Neapolitan paper Il Pungolo, and fired off a letter to Franco Faccio:
I address myself to you, Boito’s oldest, most steadfast friend, so that upon his return to Milan you may tell him in person, not in writing, that—without the shadow of resentment, without any deep-seated anger—I return his manuscript to him intact. Furthermore, since the libretto is my property, I offer it to him as a gift, for whenever he intends to compose it. If he accepts this I will be happy—happy in the hope of having furthered and served the art we all love.
Faccio responded instantly that Boito had been misunderstood, and expressed “what he [Boito], Ricordi, I, and all who love and long for the glory of Italian art would feel if you really were to resolve not to write Otello.” Boito, when he heard what Verdi had written to Faccio, was shattered. He wrote a long and emotional letter telling Verdi he had no wish to compose anything but his elusive Nerone, and no greater desire than this:
To have you set to music a libretto that I have written solely for the joy of seeing you take up your pen once more per causa mia, for the glory of being your collaborator, for the ambition of hearing my name coupled with yours, and ours with Shakespeare’s, and because this theme and my libretto have been transferred to you by the sacred right of conquest. Only you can compose Otello. The entire world of opera you have given us affirms this truth; if I have been able to perceive the Shakespearean tragedy’s enormous capability of being set to music (which I did not feel at first), and if in fact I have been able to prove this with my libretto, it is because I placed myself within the sphere of Verdian art. It is so because, in writing those verses, I felt what you would feel when illustrating them with that other language—a thousand times more intimate and mighty—sound. And if I have done this it is because I wanted to take the opportunity in the prime of my life, at an age when faith no longer wavers, to take the opportunity to show you, better than by praises thrown in your direction, how much I love and am moved by the art that you have given us…. For Heaven’s sake don’t abandon Otello, don’t abandon it. It is predestined for you.