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Verdi at The Morgan Library

Stage Directions • Design InspirationMarch 2020 • February 26, 2020

Making their U.S. debut at The Morgan Library & Museum this past fall were some wonderful treasures from Milan’s famed Ricordi Archive as the basis of the Library’s insightful exhibit, Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive.

After Aida in 1871, except for occasional projects, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Italy’s pre-eminent composer, retired from opera at the age of 58. This, however, did not prevent constant pleas from his publisher and future librettist for the maestro to return to the operatic stage. Reluctantly coaxed out of retirement, Verdi composed what would become the crowning achievements of his career: Otello andFalstaff. Although the idea for Otello first arose in 1879, when Verdi was 65, he did not begin to work on the project in earnest until he was in his 70s, after his Milanese publisher Giulio Ricordi (1840–1912) teamed up with the librettist Arrigo Boito (1842–1918) to develop a diplomatic strategy for luring “the old bear” out of retirement. Their plan worked. Applying his mature compositional skills to two brilliant libretti by Boito, Verdi created two of the greatest operas ever composed. Otello premiered in 1887and Falstaff premiered in 1893. Giulio Ricordi was ultimately responsible for marketing and managing both large-scale productions.

The Morgan exhibit presented highlights from the Milan-based, Bertelsmann-owned Ricordi Archive, along with holdings of the Morgan itself, offered visitors insight into the production of these two operas, as well as the complex enterprise of bringing an opera to life. Set designs, costumes from Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, autograph manuscripts, contracts, publications, publicity, video excerpts from recent productions, and other objects in various media come together to reveal the tremendous collaborative work behind an operatic production.

The Ricordi Archive is regarded as one of the world’s foremost privately owned music collections. It houses a total of some 7,800 original scores from more than 600 operas and hundreds of other compositions; approximately 10,000 libretti; as well as an extensive iconographic collection with precious original stage and costume designs.

Based on The Enterprise of Opera: Verdi. Boito. Ricordi, created by Bertelsmann/Ricordi and curated by Gabriele Dotto, Verdi: Creating Otelloand FalstaffHighlights from the Ricordi exhibit was under the guidance of curators Fran Barulich and Mary Flagler Cary, Curator and Department Head of Music Manuscripts and Printed Music at the Morgan, and Gabriele Dotto, Ricordi Archive Director of Scholarly Initiatives.

Learn more at The Morgan Library & Museum at and the Ricordi Archive at

Alfredo Edel (1856–1912), Desdemona and Otello costume designs for Otello at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, February 5, 1887. In close consultation with the composer and the librettist, Ricordi instructed Alfredo Edel to study Venetian paintings of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in order to prepare some 60 historically accurate costume designs for the principal roles in Otello, along with all the accessories and stage props. Pursuing the goal of “authenticity” in representation, the publisher even authorized the commissioning of custom-designed fabrics.




Giovanni Zuccarelli (1846–1897), Set design and diorama for Otello, Act 2, at Teatro Costanzi, Rome, April 1887. The original set designs by Carlo Ferrario (1833– 1907) for the Milan premiere of Otello have survived only in the form of black-and-white photographs of two of the designs. The set design and diorama displayed here were created by Giovanni Zuccarelli for the Rome production that same year.

Adolf Hohenstein (1854–1928), furniture and musical instruments prop design for Falstaff at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, February 9, 1893. Hohenstein, trained as a painter, came to Milan in his twenties and began designing sets and costumes for several theaters. In 1889, he joined the design team at Ricordi’s famous graphic arts division, soon becoming its artistic director. Casa Ricordi assumed the role of impresario at La Scala for both Otello and Falstaff and supervised all aspects of the production. As historical authenticity was in vogue, Giulio Ricordi sent Hohenstein to Windsor and London to study period architecture for the Falstaff sets and to examine garments at the British Museum dating from the Henry IV era for the opera’s costumes.

Reproduction of opening-night poster for Otello at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, February 5, and Franca Squarciapino, designer (b. 1940), Otello costume worn at Teatro alla Scala, 2001–2 season

Detail of Otello costume worn at Teatro alla Scala, 2001–2 season, Franca Squarciapino, designer (b. 1940)

Reproduction of opening-night poster for Falstaff at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, February 9, 1893 and Ezio Frigerio, designer (b. 1930), Falstaff costume worn at Teatro alla Scala, 1980–81 season & from 2001

Back detail of Falstaff costume worn at Teatro alla Scala, 1980–81 season & from 2001, Ezio Frigerio, designer (b. 1930)




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