Shakespeare as seen through opera glasses

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Shakespeare’s works on their own can be daunting for many, as can the opera. Combine the two and you may see people running for the hills (woe to those in the Prairies!) But Shakespeare and opera are a wonderful match, and there have been a few composers who took the bard’s masterful storytelling and set it to music as strong as the characters themselves.

I think the greatest success story is Verdi’s opera Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello. The silence that consumes the theatre as Othello smothers his wife is harrowing, but when set to powerful music, it evokes the sublime passion in the audience that words alone cannot. Here is the finale from Domingo’s 1992 performance. You do not have to speak Italian to feel the horror that Shakespeare evoked at the end of this tragedy.

Othello lends itself quite well to the opera form. Librettist Arrigo Boito notes that he did not have to force Shakespeare’s work into a foreign style, but that Shakespeare wrote in the convention of Italian operas. Othello, perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, fits the bill for traditional Italian opera: it is unified, it is melodramatic, and it demonstrates the fall of a great man. Iago, a larger than life villain, is right at home in Verdi’s world, as Dmitri Hvorostovsky demonstrates here:

Or, as Placido Domingo illustrates, opera can show how truly far Othello must fall to meet his tragic end.

Let us move now to a lighter note. From the strong tragedian, Verdi, to the lyrical composer, Hector Berlioz. Most noted for his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz ventured into the operatic world and took Shakespeare with him. Beatrice et Benedict, which Berlioz wrote both the music and libretto for, is largely based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Of course Berlioz realized what Shakespeare may or may not have known when writing the play at the end of the 16th century; that the the heart of the play is the wit and relationship of Beatrice and Benedick, and so Berlioz afforded these two the centre stage of the opera.

The comic opera had great initial successes. Audiences in France and Germany were won over by the beautiful duets, and Beatrice’s Aria. Certain Parisian critics decided that the spoken words were “lacking in wit”, and yet the the dialogue that Berlioz inserted almost verbatim into the opera was Shakespeare’s text. Perhaps the wit of Beatrice and Benedick does not translate well into French? Or maybe these critics were harboring a grudge for Shakespeare’s treatment of the French in such plays as Henry V.

One of the crowning achievements of the opera is actually a scene that does not appear in Shakespeare’s text. About to be married, and knowing nothing of the impending tragedy that Don John and Borrachio have put in place, Hero and Ursula sit under the moonlight and sing a sensational nocturne of love:

In his memoirs, Hector Berlioz records a conversation he had with the Grand Duke of Wiemar about this piece:

DUKE: You must have written this, he said, by moonlight in some romantic place…

BERLIOZ: Sire, this is one of those of impressions of nature that artists store in their memory and which emerge from their creative mind without warning and in the most unpredictable circumstances. I sketched the music of this duet one day at the Institut, while one of my colleagues was delivering a speech.

DUKE: Good for the speaker! the Grand Duke replied. He must have been a man of exceptional eloquence!”

So we see two contrasting operas, in libretto and score, drawn from Shakespeare. His musical influence is far greater than this brief aperitif, but I wanted to share my two favourites here. As well as composing Otello, Verdi composed Falstaffe. Unfortunately Verdi is not as strong a comic composer as he is a tragic one, and the libretto comes largely from the anti-Falstaffian Merry Wives of Windsor, so this opera does not match up to Otello despite Falstaff’s natural presence in the opera world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has also inspired a few operas. It is not hard to imagine the musically faerie world of the forest of Athens, sometimes made haunting by modernists like Benjamin Britten.

And so I close my curtain, hopefully leaving a lingering appreciation for the grand scope of Shakespeare’s works, the power of opera, or both.

Valeo amici!

Alex Benarzi

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