Opera and Shakespeare

The problem with Shakespeare is that the music is already in the words…

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare.

Opera in America was revolutionized in the 1980s, when opera companies started projecting translations of the text over the stage. Now, instead of having to study a woefully inadequate synopsis before the performance, audiences know exactly what is being sung. That’s the upside; the downside is that audiences now know exactly what is being sung. Because the fact is that many operas succeed in spite of their librettos, not because of them, and many a popular opera is actually a musical silk purse made out of a veritable sow’s ear of a libretto.

            Still, composers have an obvious advantage if they start with a really good text, and it would seem logical to turn to the best playwrights. You might think that would make Shakespeare a fertile source, but the reality has not worked out that way. The problem with Shakespeare is that the music is already in the words, and there is virtually nothing a composer could add to make it more effective. It would be, to misquote the Bard himself, like gilding the lily. This is why operas based upon or inspired by Shakespeare plays virtually never use his actual text.

            Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) had his first crack at a Shakespeare story with the tenth of his twenty-eight operas, Macbeth (1847), in the melodramatic, blood-and-thunder style typical of Verdi’s early works. When he reviewed the score in 1865, he found “certain numbers that are weak or lacking in character, which is worse still”—a testament to the composer’s evolution during the half-century that he dominated Italian opera.

            Verdi’s musical development first culminated in what almost became his final opera, Aida, in 1871, and his definitive setting of the Requiem Mass that premiered in 1874. He then settled into a comfortable retirement, but some 13 years later he would return in blazing triumph to the opera stage with another Shakespearean inspiration, Otello.

            Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868), who ruled the world of Italian opera during the decades before Verdi snatched his crown, had composed an Otello in 1816. Although it bears only a fleeting resemblance to Shakespeare, it remained popular almost until Verdi’s version swept it into oblivion in 1887. By that time the sunny brightness of Rossini’s music had yielded to the brooding darkness of late Romanticism, a style far more appropriate to the tale of Othello and Desdemona’s tragic love.

            Verdi’s unparalleled gift for melody and mastery of orchestral colors ensured that his Otello would take its place near the top of the operatic heap. Certainly his score doesn’t lack for spectacular music gestures, from the explosive lightning bolt that starts the opera, to the lusty choral crowd scenes, the pageantry of the 16th-century Venetian court, and ultimately the brutal murder with which it concludes.

            Yet for all of its technicolor brilliance, Verdi’s drama is actually amazingly intimate; the true action transpires inside the protagonist’s head, where Iago plants the doubt and jealousy that eventually drive him to murder his beloved wife over an act of infidelity she never committed. Part of Verdi’s genius was the way he was able to expose and shine a light on the machinations of a deteriorating mind. So great were Verdi’s dramatic skills that he could make an imaginary event as vividly palpable as an actual one; you barely need the Supertitles to witness the process. It is this psychological complexity, coupled with the nearly impossible vocal demands Verdi makes upon the singer, that have made the title role the Everest of tenor parts.

            Of course Verdi didn’t do this all by himself. The fine text he set was brilliantly crafted by Arrigo Boito, who, as an aspiring opera composer himself, understood a composer’s needs. His only completed opera, Mefistofele, premiered unsuccessfully in 1868, but he earned more fame in 1876 as the librettist for Ponchielli’s masterpiece, La Gioconda. It was the prospect of collaborating with Boito on Otello suggested by the publisher Ricordi that finally lured Verdi out of retirement.

            Verdi’s only opera after Otello was another hugely successful Shakespeare-inspired collaboration with Boito, Falstaff, one of only two comedies Verdi ever composed. But for this listener, at least, Otello is the most brilliant jewel in the crown of the composer whose genius was so spectacularly detonated by the searing drama of Shakespeare’s tragedy. George Bernard Shaw quipped, “The truth is that instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.” If that’s true, the Bard of Avon must have had Verdi in mind.

John Schauer is a freelance writer who worked at San Francisco Opera for 13 years and spins his own bizarre operatic fantasies in his novel Chaste Goddess.

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