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 …