I told a friend recently that I had no interest in seeing the film Life of Pi because I admired the book so much. But tonight, watching a recording of the San Francisco Opera production of Otello, I realized it's possible to admire both an original and its copy in another medium. In fact, I'm not sure that I don't think Verdi's Otello is even better than Shakespeare's Othello. The SFO production is not ideal -- Johan Botha is neither physically nor vocally what one would want in the title role -- but even a flawed production brings back memories of less-flawed performances, such as Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo in the role, or of the old recording with Giovanni Martinelli as Otello and Ramon Vinay as Iago. And the score itself carries so much of the glory of the opera.
So is Verdi's (and Boito's) version really better than Shakespeare's? No, something is inevitably lost in translation: "Abbasso le spade!" is certainly not a patch on "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them," when it comes to beauty and wit. And Shakespeare's Desdemona has more depth of characterization than Boito's. But there is nothing in the play that has the impact of the great operatic scene in which Iago goads Otello into an oath of vengeance, especially when performed by two stellar singing actors like Piero Cappuccili and Domingo in this 1976 La Scala production: