The action takes place at a seaport on the island of Cyprus, usually identified as Famagusta. The time is usually described as the 16th century.
Overlooking the sea outside the castle
There is no overture. As the curtain rises, there is a tremendous storm in progress. Suddenly the ship of the Venetian General Otello is sighted. The Venetians and Cypriots watch in horror as the ship is tossed about, and they pray for its safety. Among the watchers are Cassio, Otello's captain; Iago, Otello's ensign; Montano, Otello's predecessor as Governor of Cyprus; and Roderigo, a Venetian nobleman in love with Otello's wife, Desdemona. As the storm calms, the ship lands and Otello steps ashore, announcing the Venetian victory over the Turks and the sinking of the Turkish fleet (Esultate!)
The crowd rejoices and builds a bonfire (Fuoco di gioia — Fire of rejoicing). Iago advises Roderigo that time will cause Desdemona to tire of Otello and turn to him. Although he hides it behind a genial facade, Iago hates Otello because he promoted Cassio instead of himself, and he is determined to take revenge. When he urges Cassio to join him in drink, the captain at first refuses but is finally persuaded to toast Otello and Desdemona. Soon Cassio is drunk (Inaffia l'ugola! — 'Wet your whistle). At Iago's urging, Roderigo provokes Cassio to a fight. When Montano tries to stop them, Cassio draws his sword and wounds him. Iago urges Roderigo to spread the alarm and cry 'Revolt'. The commotion brings Otello. When asked, 'honest' Iago denies knowing anything about it, but manages to put the blame on Cassio. As Iago gloats over the success of his plan, Desdemona enters; the noise has awakened her. An angry Otello orders Iago to restore peace and then deprives Cassio of his rank. Left alone, Otello and Desdemona sing of their love. (Già nella notte densa — Now in the dark night). They recall how the stories of his exploits in battle caused her to love him . They kiss (Un bacio…ancora un bacio — a kiss…again a kiss).
A hall in the castle with views of the garden outside
Iago promises Cassio that he will soon be reinstated. He should ask Desdemona to intercede with her husband on his behalf; she will be in the garden at noon. After Cassio leaves, Iago gloats about his control over him and then sings his Credo, his belief in a cruel God and his own evilness.
In what follows, we see what is happening in the garden while Iago describes it. Desdemona enters, Cassio approaches her, and she greets him with smiles. When Otello comes in, Iago pretends not to see him and continues to comment on what he has seen. Otello asks him if that had been Cassio in the garden. This gives Iago the chance to plant the first seeds of jealousy, at the same time warning Otello about the 'green-eyed monster' and suggesting he watch his wife carefully. (Actually, in the opera, it is 'hydra-headed monster'.)
Desdemona returns to the garden surrounded by women and children of Cyprus who give her flowers and gifts as Otello and Iago watch from inside (Dove guardi splendono raggi — Wherever you look, light shines). When Desdemona comes in from the garden with Emilia, Iago's wife, she immediately begins to plead on behalf of Cassio. Otello refuses to listen and complains of a headache. She offers to bind his head with her handkerchief but he throws it on the ground. Confused by his action, she begs his pardon for what she might have done to anger him. Emilia picks up the handkerchief, but Iago demands it from her. She resists and calls him cruel, but he snatches it from her, warning her to say nothing. He plans to leave the handkerchief at Cassio's house; his poison is beginning to work.
Suddenly Otello rounds on Iago for making him suspicious and for bringing him visions of Desdemona in Cassio's arms (Ora e per sempre addio — Now and forever goodbye). Throwing Iago to the ground, he demands proof. In return, Iago tells of how he overheard Cassio as he was dreaming of being with Desdemona (Era la notte — It was night). Iago then asks about the handkerchief, and tells Otello he saw it in Cassio's hand. This is proof enough. Together they swear vengeance (Sì, pel ciel — Yes, by heaven).
The great hall of the castle
A herald announces that a ship bearing Venetian ambassadors has been sighted. Iago tells Otello he will get Cassio to talk to him while Otello hides to listen. Desdemona approaches and once more pleads for Cassio. In turn, Otello asks her to bind his head with her handkerchief. When she produces the wrong one, he warns her that the one he had given her was woven by a sorceress and carries a terrible spell. He orders her to fetch it, but she continues to speak about Cassio. Enraged, he seizes her and, ignoring her protests of faithfulness, accuses her of falsity. Changing from anger to irony, he leads her to the door, begging her pardon for wronging the 'whore who is Otello's wife'. Alone, he sings of his betrayal and vows she will confess her sins (Dio! mi potevi scagliar — God you could have tried me).
Iago re-enters to announce the arrival of Cassio who is looking for Desdemona. As Otello eavesdrops, Iago gets Cassio to speak of the one he loves, naming the ex-captain's mistress, Bianca, under his breath so that Otello does not hear the name. As they joke about the girl, Otello thinks they are speaking of Desdemona. Cassio then tells of finding the handkerchief in his house, produces it, and they sing of its beauty (Questa è una ragna — This is a spider web). Otello is finally completely convinced. Suddenly, trumpets announce the docking of the Venetian ship.
As an off-stage chorus hails its arrival, Otello asks Iago to get him some poison, but Iago persuades him it would be better to strangle Desdemona. Pleased, Otello makes him his new captain.
Lodovico and his entourage enter, and Desdemona and Emilia join them. Otello is given a message from the Doge.
While he reads, Lodovico asks Desdemona about Cassio and when Otello hears her speak of her affection for the ex-captain, he suddenly strikes out at her. Lodovico restrains him and asks the ensign about Otello's outburst. Iago implies that such behavior is usual. Otello sends the herald to find Cassio and, when he arrives, announces that the Doge is recalling him to Venice and has appointed Cassio in his place. Furiously he throws his wife to the ground ordering her to weep. She does so (A terra!…sì…nel livido fango — On the ground, yes, in the mud). As the others respond in horror, Iago urges Otello to speed his revenge and suggests to Roderigo that, if Cassio was to be killed, Otello would have to remain in Cyprus. Roderigo takes the hint. Otello orders all to leave. Alone with Iago, he falls in an epileptic fit, and as the crowd outside hails the "Lion of Venice", the sneering villain places his foot on the unconscious hero saying Ecco il Leone! (Behold the lion!)
Otello tells his wife to go to bed and wait for him, but she is apprehensive. She tells Emilia to lay her white bridal robe on the bed and, if anything happens to her, to use it for her shroud. She then sings a sad song about one of her mother's maids who was forsaken by the man she loved, and who sang a song about a weeping willow. She says farewell to Emilia and then sings an Ave Maria.
Otello enters and asks if she has prayed that night. He does not want to her to die until she has had a chance to confess her sins. He denounces her for her 'affair' with Cassio and, in spite of her pleas, strangles her. Emilia brings the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo. When she sees the dying Desdemona, Otello confesses that he did it and calls on Iago as a witness. She calls for help and Iago, Lodovico and Cassio appear. When Iago tells her he believed Desdemona unfaithful, Emilia turns on him and tells how her husband snatched the handkerchief from her hand. Montano arrives with the news that the dying Roderigo has told him about Iago's villainy. Iago flees. Otello stabs himself, then falls on Desdemona's body, and referring back to the Act I love duet, asks for 'a kiss…another kiss'.
Courtesy of San Diego Opera’s Operapaedia