Ave Maria, a setting by Arrigo Boito, was composed by Giuseppe Verdi in 1885 (Ab major) and premiered in 1887. This aria takes place in act IV of his opera, Otello.
After the astounding success of Aida in 1871, Verdi had decided to retire and his editor, Guilio Riccordi went to great length to convince him to compose another opera. Introducing him to Arrigo Boito, he repeatedly insisted on Verdi working on his libretto of Otello, first handed in 1879. It was not before five years later that the opera was completed, in 1885. At its premiere in 1887, it proved to be a tremendous success and was soon performed across Europe.
Act I opens on a violent tempest at the port of Cyprus where Otello, new governor, is awaited. As Otello’s ship battles the ocean, all hope they will arrive safe, except Iago. The ship succeeds in reaching the shore and Otello is acclaimed for his victory against the Turkish by his people. In the meantime, Iago and Roderigo are having a conversation: the two of them hate Otello; Iago, because, Otello had Cassio promoted as a captain of the navy in his place and Roderigo because he desires Otello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago aims for revenge and decides to ruin the coming celebrations and convince everyone Cassio is responsible one. He encourages Cassio to drink and then asks Roderigo to provoke him. Cassio reacts violently and refuses to calm down when Montano orders him to. When they fight in duel, Montano is hurt. Otello arrives, alerted by the disturbance and asks Iago what has happened. Iago pretends he doesn’t know and when Otello sees Montano has been hurt, he furiously takes back Cassio’s promotion as a navy captain. All go home, and Desdemona and Otello are left to unite, lovingly.
Act II opens on Iago manipulating Cassio who has asked for his guidance. He advices him to ask Desdemona to intercede for his reinstatement. He follows his instructions and awaits for Desdemona in the gardens. She sees him, she sends her maid, Emilia, away and they speak one to one. When Otello arrives, Iago alludes to the fact he should beware of the relation between his wife and Cassio. His jealous temper is aroused and when Desdemona intercedes for Cassio, he reacts furiously. She tries to calm him down and wants to wipe his forehead with her handkerchief but Otello throws it away. As they leave, Iago forces Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and his own wife, to give him the handkerchief. Otello is convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity and Iago invents a story proving Cassio and Desdemona could be lovers, as he saw Cassio with her handkerchief. Otello furiously, decides to seek revenge.
In Act III, Otello finds himself unable to focus on diplomacy. When he meets Desdemona again, he asks her for her handkerchief and she tells him she doesn’t have it. He accuses her, but she swears she is innocent and tries to intercede again for Cassio. He is outraged and she leaves terrified by his fury. Otello, then hides to overhear all the conversation between Iago and Cassio. Iago manipulates the conversation and asks Cassio about his mistress Bianca in a way that is seems they are speaking of Desdemona. Cassio, then tells him about the handkerchief he found in his room (Iago put it there) and Otello’s fury reaches its paroxysm.
Convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, he decides to kill her and promotes Iago to captain of the navy. Someone arrives, with a letter announcing the Doge of Venice has decided Otello would be his successor which means he need to leave. When he sees Desdemona’s sadness, he mistakenly believes she is saddened to be soon separated from Cassio. Outraged, he throws her to the floor in front of everyone. Iago and Roderigo understand they need to act fast and the couple will be leaving tomorrow. Otello asks everyone to leave and faints with rage and despair.
Act IV opens on Desdemona awaiting Otello in their room. She is filled dark thoughts and asks her maid, Emilia to have her buried in one of her nuptial veils. She decides to pray and sings her beautiful Ave Maria.