What a gift to the world that Verdi was talked out of retirement to write Otello, a dramatic and musical masterpiece, based on Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy. Much has been made of the decade-long efforts of his publisher Ricordi and the librettist Arrigo Boito to pull Verdi back into composition after his public retirement in 1871. Suffice it to say that the opera world benefits greatly from their success. Otello is a treasure, and this star-studded 2012 Met production is a must-see.

Renée Fleming’s understanding of the role of Desdemona has long been established – she embodies it vocally and dramatically, from her innocent love for Otello to her fall from grace and eventual demise. Johan Botha makes an imposing Otello, vocally as well as physically, for he is terrifying in his rage, blue eyes blazing madly. Falk Struckmann is a demonic Iago, manipulating Cassio and Otello like marionettes and bringing about Otello’s downfall with skill and power (and with a broad palette of lyric shadings). Michael Fabiano (Cassio), James Morris (Lodovico), Eduardo Valdes (Rodrigo) and Renée Tatum (Emilia) complete this exceptional cast. No less impressive than these voices is the Met Orchestra who are ably steered through Verdi’s demanding masterpiece by Semyon Bychkov.

The production, by Elijah Moshinsky and first staged at the Met in 1994, is lush, richly textured, intelligently staged and beautifully lit. Act I opens in slick black and blue tones, with dramatic lighting depicting the storm as Otello’s ship is sighted returning from a battle with the Turks. Later, Otello’s safe return is celebrated as bonfires are lit; old and young sing “Fuoco di gioia” bathed in the warm light. Two torch carriers dance to wonderfully clean pizzicato string work as children, bearing lanterns, are carried on shoulders to welcome Otello home. The act ends with Desdemona and Otello, both clothed in elaborate robes, remembering how they first fell in love with each other in “Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor”.

Act II opens on a set with a room that is decorated with imposing furniture, covered with maps, books and other objects; a garden with blossoming trees fills the background. Iago and Cassio open in dialogue to melodious, rich and sweet orchestral sounds in “Non ti crucciar”, which shift dramatically into Iago’s nihilistic monologue “Credo in un Dio crudel”. Verdi’s brilliant use of orchestration to color everything from agitation to deviousness, from innocence to mistrust, is exceptional. The act ends with Otello and Iago’s thrilling duet, “Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro”, where both swear revenge.

The noose tightens around the necks of the unknowing Desdemona and Otello as Iago’s seeds of evil sprout and take on a life of their own. Desdemona’s confusion grows as Otello’s attitude towards her grows increasingly hostile, culminating in one of the great ensemble numbers in operatic history, “Quell’innocente un fremito d’odio non ha nè un gesto”. Desdemona bemoans her fall from favor, Otello vents his venomous rage, Iago presses Otello to murder his wife and pushes Rodrigo to attack Cassio, and the bystanders react incredulously to Otello’s treatment of his innocent bride.

Musically, Act IV is exquisite, from the opening solo of the cor anglais and the woodwind work, through Desdemona’s “Salce” scene with Emilia to her imploring “Ave Maria”. Ms Fleming’s flexibility and range both musically and as an actress are stunning, and the scene is complex and heartbreaking. After being strangled, she perishes slowly, protesting her innocence in haunting straight-tones. Iago’s misdeeds are then exposed, Otello takes his own life, the curtain falls and the audience erupts in delirious applause for this first-rate performance.