Within a generation of Shakespeare's death in 1616, the English composer Henry Purcell had composed music for The Fairy Queen (1692), an adaptation of Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, considered by many to be the first "Shakespeare opera." Other compositions were performed as musical adjuncts to performances of Shakespeare's plays-George Frederic Handel's Acis and Galatea, for example, was performed at Drury Lane in 1724 as an afterpiece for The Tempest. A host of composers since have derived inspiration from Shakespeare's work in the theater, not only composing works on libretti based on the plays themselves, but also in their incorporation of Shakespearean theatrical conventions, from stagecraft to plot exposition, which so revolutionized staged theater throughout the world.
Italian opera surged in popularity at the turn of the eighteenth century, finally reaching England, where it inspired a fierce divisiveness of public response in its wake. In Italy, the form had flourished, with the first public opera houses opening in Venice in the 1630s. In London, Italian opera became the height of fashionable entertainment, but it’s detractors considered it artless display, and certainly counter to the kind of theatrical experience that Shakespearean theater was proposing. Worse still was the public reaction to Italian operas whose libretti were based on works of the Bard, viewed by some as a kind of theatrical heresy. While the great Shakespearean tragedies provided the grand themes that opera exploited so adeptly, the style of operatic stage presentations precluded any serious attempts at presenting authentic drama onstage.
Several of Shakespeare’s most successful plays have proven perenially inspiring to operatic composers. A few of his greatest characters, like King Lear, defied easy transformation into operatic form. And the subtleties of Shakespearean drama were not always easily achieved on the operatic stage, where the action was traditionally brought to a halt by arias expounding upon the emotional states of the characters, very different from the constant, subtle shifts of emotion occurring in the finest moments of Shakespeare. Certain works have been especially fertile ground for operatic inspiration. Romeo and Juliet appears to have been the all-time most popular among Shakespeare’s stageworks, with composers as varied as Bellini (i Capuletti e i Montecchi), Gounod (Roméo et Juliette), and Zandonai (Giulietta e Romeo) composing works based upon it. Ambroise Thomas’s version of Hamlet, with a libretto by Carré and Barbier (the same pair who wrote the libretto for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette), enjoyed enormous popularity at its premiere, as did Hector Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Much Ado About Nothing. Richard Wagner even turned to the Bard for inspiration, basing Das Liebesverbot (1836) on Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure.
The Merry Wives of Windsor was the basis for Otto Nicolai’s opera, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, which premiered at the Hofoper in Berlin in 1849. Nicolai, a successful composer and conductor, and founder of the Vienna Philharmonic, once declared that “no one but Mozart could do justice to Shakespeare.” Nevertheless, his opera, with a libretto by Hermann Salomon Mosenthal based on Shakespeare’s comedy, captures much of the spirit of the stage play, and the opera’s tuneful music has ensured lasting popularity for the work.
The Form Evolves
Opera, a musical form whose origins and development coincided roughly with Shakespeare’s own, benefited enormously from the theatrical innovations he introduced, but the slow expositional pace made it difficult for opera to accommodate the rapid, subtle shifts of emotion in Shakespearean theater. It was not until the appearance of Giuseppe Verdi’s final two operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), that it was finally felt a composer had successfully captured the multi-faceted dimensions of character and emotion of the stage plays in operatic form.
This was not Verdi’s first effort at setting a stage work of the Bard. As Italian opera had taken London by storm a century before, the early 1800s saw a surge of interest in Shakespeare’s works, as they began to become more well-known throughout Italy. Verdi himself was very familiar with Shakespeare’s canon, the works of Schiller as well, and he would turn to these two great writers for inspiration throughout his career. Verdi had contemplated the idea of an opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear at various points in his career, but could never find singers that he felt would do justice to the roles of Lear and Cordelia. He had also considered operatic versions of Hamlet and The Tempest, and expressed to a colleague his desire to produce works based on “all the principal plays of the great tragedian.” He had enjoyed considerable success with his 1847 opera, Macbeth, with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by the well-known Venetian journalist and librettist, Francesco Maria Piave (who would provide Shakespeare with ten libretti, including those for La traviata, Rigoletto, and La forza del destino),that was considered a triumph at its premiere. But it would be Verdi’s last two operas which would finally achieve the simultaneous expression of different ideas and feelings which had heretofore been unattainable in operatic form. Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist for these operas, brought a composer’s sensitivity to his adaptation of Shakespeare’s dialogue, while Verdi responded to these works with poignant, dramatically inventive music. The operas are considered the crowning achievement of the great composer’s career. It is interesting to note, as well as a testament to the persistent appeal of Shakespeare, that it would be two of his works that would lure Verdi out of his sixteen-year, self-imposed retirement in Busseto to return to composing for the operatic stage.
With Otello, Verdi had an important operatic progenitor to live up to. Gioacchino Rossini had advanced the opera seria form with his 1816 adaptation of the great Shakespearean tragedy, and few believed that his effort, an operatic tour de force with three tenor leads, would ever be surpassed. Rossini’s Otello was not entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s stage play, altering the plot in places, and portraying the character of Iago, notably, in a far less sinister vein than either Shakespeare or the later Verdi work would. What was remarkable about this Otello was the ingenious third act, which weaves various dialogues and musical themes into an effective whole, culminating in Othello’s death. It represents a milestone in the subordination of musical form to dramatic form in opera, with music that supports and helps propel the dramatic action onstage.
Verdi, like Rossini an astute man of the theater, took up the gauntlet. As G.B. Shaw famously quipped, “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.” Verdi effectively built upon the contrasts inherent in his two leads, Iago and Othello, using the music to further define and develop their characters, and contributing to the overall dramatic tension in the work.
Boito quickly sketched out a libretto for Falstaff, drawn primarily from The Merry Wives of Windsor, along with various parts of the character of Henry IV taken from other Shakespeare plays, and submitted it to Verdi for consideration, hoping to capitalize on the composer’s positive experience with the Otello premiere. Verdi responded enthusiastically to the project, and Falstaff was completed in 1893, the culmination of all of the composer’s many great accomplishments in the lyric theater.
A number of modern composers have turned to the works of William Shakespeare, adapting the stage works or using them as archetypes or points of departure for new interpretations. Frederick Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet (1900) transported the action of Shakespeare’s drama to a (then) contemporary setting, while Leonard Bernstein reimagined the internecine conflict in the form of a modern-day turf war in his West Side Story (1957). Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (1948) utilizes the Shakespearean convention of a play within a play to reinterpret The Taming of the Shrew as a parable of the relationships between men and women, with the real-life experiences of the leads mirroring those of the characters that they portray upon the stage.
Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) is a literal interpretation, effectively editing and shaping Shakespeare’s original text into a new setting, with music that illustrates and evokes the multifaceted parade of emotional states displayed by the characters. Britten’s music plays an integral role in the unfolding action, creating mood and eliciting emotion, and the opera is generally considered to be one of the most effective musical settings of Shakespeare’s prose.
Samuel Barber turned to Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra as the inspiration for the opera he was commissioned to write for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in 1966. The American composers John Eaton and Lee Hoiby scored notable successes with their respective versions of The Tempest (1985, 1986), as did the Italian Lucio Berio with his Tempest-inspired meditation, Un re in ascolto (A king listens) (1984). As recently as 2004, the English composer Thomas Adès premiered an operatic version of The Tempest at Covent Garden to great acclaim. It seems safe to say that the works of William Shakespeare will continue to be a source of inspiration for the contemporary stage, providing as they do a window into those most basic of human emotions, as uncannily accurate today in their depiction as they were in Shakespeare’s own time.
Program notes by Kevin Hanek