Otello had its first performance in Paris on 12 October 1894, for which Verdi provided the obligatory ballet music. The Ballàbili (dances) were written a year after Falstaff and finished on 12 August 1894 (Conati 1994, 224). This was Verdi's last operatic composition.
The ballet is inserted in the Third Act. After Iago leaves to bring Desdemona to meet the ambassadors, the horns launch into the first section of the Ballet. The music returns to the Third Act two measures after the point at which the ballet begins.
The ballet is comprised of seven sections:
Looking at the splendid, colonnaded scene of the Third Act, I decided to make the music go as follows: At the very beginning , to the sound of horns, a group of Turkish slave-girls dance with reluctance and ill-humor because of the very fact they are slaves. Then, hearing the strains of the Arab Song, they grow livelier and at the end dance quite wildly. . .At the Invocation to Allah, they all fall to the ground. . . Just then a group of beautiful Greek girls appears among the columns, and four measures later another similar group; at the thirteenth measure these two groups join in a quiet, aristocratic, classical dance. The next motif is that of La Muranese (allegro vivace 6/8), which heralds the appearance of a "group" (!) of Venetians. . .Eight measures later, another group of Venetians enters and at the eighteenth measure (fortissimo) these two groups meet and dance at the front of the stage. After the fortissimo there is a passage of very light music in F sharp, which should be danced by couples. This motif is repeated, louder, and then all the Venetians dance together. The 6/8 motif reappears, and here I should like to see another group of Venetians come forward. The War Song should be danced by men alone. At the recurrence of the first motif, all the Venetians dance again, then at the piu mosso, Venetians, Turks, Greeks, and the rest all dance together. . .Amen. (Gatti 1955, 326-7).
Verdi timed the composition at 5 minutes and 59 seconds. The section of the score marked Invocazione Di Allah is only six bars long. It serves as a breaking point between the more rapid sections, perhaps giving the "wild" dancers a short respite. Verdi had been looking for either a Hymn to Allah or Song of the Muezzin. Verdi happened to remember a section written by Felicien David (1810-1876) in his Ode-Symphony, Le Desert. Verdi quoted this section directly from an orchestral transcription of a melody that was given by David to his tenor soloist. (Budden 1984, 3:401). The Ode-Symphony was premiered on 8 December 1844. There are three movements for soloists and male-voice chorus. Some of the scenes described include: a desert storm, a prayer to Allah, the caravan, the reverie du soir, and the Muezzin's call. The music is strictly oriental in inflection. The tunefulness of the hymn to Allah accounted for some of its popularity (Sadie 1980, 5:264). As for the Muranese, Verdi reported to Ricordi that it was written 2000 years ago for a war between Venice and Murano which the Muranese won. The Canzone Greca was a song from Greece written around 500 B. C. (Conati 1994, 224).
Franco Zeffirelli made use of the Ballàbili in his film version of Otello. He used the music as a segue to suggest an all-consuming victory celebration over the defeat of the Turks. Iago and Roderigo take their conversation upstage and music from the first section of the ballet is introduced. The Invocazione Di Allah is then brought in. For the finale, the first section is combined with the Canzone Araba. Arabian costumes are worn by the dancers. Lanterns are carried by children riding atop the adults' shoulders. There are also people running and jumping over the bonfires, increasing the crowd's pleasure.
The Ballàbili are usually omitted from performances today. Perhaps one reason is the fear that they will lessen the intensity of the Third Act. Verdi, in a letter to Giulio Ricordi, said of the ballet music, "artistically speaking, it is a monstrosity." He insisted that it be excluded from the score because it interrupted the action (Phillips-Matz 1993, 690). In fact, the ballet music is included in the Ricordi score, as an appendix.
The NBC Symphony Orchestra Conductor: Arturo Toscanini Recorded: March 13, 1948 RCA #09026-60309-2 Mono Recording
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Conductor: James Levine Recorded: April and May 1992 Sony #SK 52489 Digital Recording
The Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Conductor: Lorin Maazel Starring: Domingo, Ricciarelli and Diaz Recorded: 1985 Stereo Recording
contributed by Stephen L. Parker