Verdi held back from writing Otello for years, only finally agreeing to take a look at Arrigo Boito's libretto with no promises that he would ever do any more than that. The lives of great composers are full of stories about how weak opera librettos have ill served great music - Schubert and Beethoven are just two examples. But Boito's brilliant libretto brought out the best of Verdi's music, and the result is one of the outstanding operas of the repertory. Verdi was, after all, the composer that could make the story of Il Trovatore worth listening to, and given Shakespeare's genius as realized by Boito's simpler but still brilliant version, he wrote the best music of his life.
It includes the challenging title role that has both attracted and intimidated tenors since the opera appeared. Otello is a warrior hero, and the standard touchstones for the role in the immediate generation before Placido Domingo, the tenor on the recording we have, were the performances of clarion even stentorian tenors like Mario del Monaco or Jon Vickers, tenors with the voice to match the idea of vocal heroism that many opera lovers said was of primary necessity for the role. Some warned Domingo not to sing Otellon because it was too heavy for his voice. But he proved them wrong in what became one of his most famous roles. Sherrill Milnes sings Jago, and Renata Scotto Desdemona.