Like many of the great Otellos, Zanelli started his career as a baritone and developed into a tenor during the early years of his career. Throughout his career, he retained a richness of timbre that served him well in dramatic roles, and the secure bottom notes that helped make him “the new Tamagno, (the greatest Italian dramatic tenor of the previous generation)” particularly as Otello. His acting was as acclaimed as his singing, and he had a particularly commanding stage presence, well-suited for heroic roles. He studied privately with Angelo Querenz and made his opera debut in Santiago as Valentin in Gounod’s Faust in 1915. He followed this with his Met debut as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida in 1919, and in 1923, following a suggestion from Arturo Toscanini, went to Italy where he studied to sing as a tenor.
I’m not going to go over the plot of Andrea Chénier since I have done that already in another posting. I will briefly describe what is happening in the various acts of Otello so that you understand what the character is trying to express. This opera is one of Verdi’s great great operas and needs to be sung by a heroic tenor. Today, we have a lack of heroic tenors. But to the plot. This will be the really abridged version.
The opera is taken from Shakespeare’s Othello. The opera takes place in Cyprus. A large thunderstorm is howling, and the people of the town await the new governor, Otello, who is a Moor. Iago is Otello’s “friend” who begins his machinations against Otello right away. He offers to help Roderigo seduce Otello’s wife Desdemona. Iago’s evil doing continues through the length of the opera. In Shakespeare, Iago is depicted as Satanic.
This second aria below is from Act III of Othello. Iago has managed to persuade Otello, through various lies and stratagems, that Desdemona has been unfaithful. He is pushing himself toward killing her, which happens in the final act. Here, this aria is pleading with God as to why he has been cursed with an unfaithful wife. Desdemona has not been unfaithful, but Otello does not know this yet.
Ore e Sempre occurs earlier in the opera. It is in Act II. At this point in the opera, Iago is pouring his poison into Otello’s ear to try to convince him that Desdemona has become unfaithful to him. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Otello believed him. In the Shakespearean version, Othello asks Iago for the “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s disloyalty. This becomes one of Desdemona’s handkerchiefs, which will lead to her death in Act IV.
Finally, Niun mi tema takes place in Act IV after Otello has strangled Desdemona. It is his realization of the terrible wrong that he has done and the innocence of his wife. He kisses her, and he kills himself.