Shakespeare in the Opera House

As the world’s most famous playwright, it would seem appropriate that Shakespeare would be as popular a presence in the opera house as he has been in the concert hall. Certainly the sheer number of pieces inspired by Shakespeare’s plays show that an operatic response to these works has proven an irresistible project to countless composers and librettists over the centuries. The corpus of operas based on Shakespeare’s plays not only display a multitude of musical styles, but also present widely differing attitudes to the idea of textual fidelity. In some ways, though, this variety of artistic approaches seems to me to reinforce the idea that composers and librettists have had to tackle a common task in modifying Shakespeare to the demands of the lyric stage. Considering these issues, I was struck by the fact that Verdi’s operas Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff each demonstrate within one composer’s output some notably different qualities in their relationship both with Shakespeare: qualities that speak to changing tastes and styles, and perhaps to a unifying ideal.

As a relatively early work, Macbeth presents numerous stylistic contrasts with the latter two Shakespeare operas. These are differences that are perhaps further accentuated by the way in which Verdi’s 1865 revisions do not always lie happily alongside the material of the 1847 original version. As well as the (perhaps inevitable) cutting of scenes from Shakespeare’s original, Verdi makes two notable changes: the witches are presented as a chorus (rather than as three individual characters) and a scene is added portraying a crowd of refugees displaced by Macbeth’s tyrannous reign. Though I think that both these modifications are quite effective in terms of the contrast they create with the solo and duet sections that follow them, I was interested as to whether they reflected Verdi’s ideal dramatic conception of Shakespeare’s work transferred to the lyric stage, or if they were an elegant solution to the practical necessity to include chorus numbers in the opera. In reality I imagine that the answer does not really conform to such a binary choice, but I think this may well reflect a bigger issue at play in Macbeth: how does Verdi mold Shakespeare’s play into an operatic form that has expected stylistic conventions in terms of the number and distribution of arias, ensembles, and choruses?

Such concerns of genre do not present themselves in the same way in the two Shakespeare-inspired works that were the culmination of Verdi's career. Both Otello and Falstaff reveal a great deal to us about Verdi’s love of Shakespeare in as much as these were works he wrote out of desire rather than career necessity. Moreover, I think they say something about Verdi’s self-identification as a man of a theatre; as someone who now saw his gifts as sufficient to be able to transfer the essence of Shakespeare’s drama into the opera house in its totality. Textual fidelity to Shakespeare’s play abounds in Boito’s libretto for Otello, thus presenting characters of equally complex variety and depth to the original. However the piece is surely as significant for the way in which the orchestra itself becomes enmeshed in the drama, “speaking” in the same way that characters on the stage do. Ironically this was a characteristic that Verdi was critical of in the works of his younger colleague Puccini, but to my mind it shows the possibility that opera can truly live-up to the mantle of Shakespeare: that the music, acting as a catalyst for the dramatic potential of the text, can enhance the overall experience.

Though Falstaff shares with Otello the quality of a “personified” orchestra, its relation with Shakespeare’s text is quite different, combining as it does scenes from both The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. Though some people have argued that this means Falstaff is not a true Shakespeare-inspired opera, I would suggest that this is a question of how we interpret Verdi's focus. To me Verdi’s relationship with Shakespeare – or at least his professional relationship in terms of Shakespeare as a source for libretti – is defined by his attraction to particular characters. Thus the fact that Boito and Verdi orientate the narrative around the character of Falstaff demonstrates a consistency of approach from Macbeth through Otello to Falstaff. In Shakespeare’s finely-wrought characters Verdi – like many other composers and librettists – sought to inhabit the portrayal of human nature that give his works universal appeal: a quality undistorted by the process of translation, both literal – from English to Italian – and stylistic – from the theatre to the opera house.