Verdi’s Shakespeare

Historian Garry Wills’ new book, Verdi’s Shakespeare, is a fascinating study of the Italian maestro’s lifelong love of the works of the great English playwright. Even though Verdi neither spoke nor read English (although his wife, the singer Giuseppina Strepponi knew English), he read the plays and poetry in Italian translation for pleasure throughout his long life (1813-1901).

The scholar and Verdi friend Italo Pizzi recounted that in 1883 Verdi told him that “Shakespeare . . . analyses the human mind so acutely and penetrates it so profoundly, that the words he puts into his characters’ mouths are essentially human, essentially true, as they should be.”

As a result of his study of Shakespeare’s plays, Verdi created three works of genius, Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, the last two among the greatest of all operatic works, and ushered in a new standard of truth and realism to the lyric stage.

It is Wills’ central thesis that both Shakespeare and Verdi were men of the stage, who created their works for their own time, adapting them where necessary to the talents of the performers who were available to them. Verdi made this central fact of his artistic life explicit. After the triumph of Otello at its premiere (La Scala, Feb. 5, 1887), Verdi expressed his sadness to his friend and sometime collaborator Giuseppe Giacosa (as recounted in Marcello Conati, Encounters with Verdi (1984)). “How painful to have finished it! I shall now suffer such loneliness. Till now I used to wake each morning and return to the love, anger, jealousy, deceit of my characters. And I would say to myself: today I have this scene to compose, and if it did not proceed according to my wishes, I would arm myself for the struggle, confident of victory. . . I would arrive home, still excited by the glorious life of the theatre, happy at the goals I ad reached, thinking about those I intended reaching tomorrow, and I was not conscious of fatigue and I did not feel my age. But now? Since Otello now belongs to the public, it has ceased to be mine . . . I now feel an enormous void, which I think I shall never be able to fill.”

Shakespeare needed to be mindful of the economics of his theater, so many of his players were expected to play more than one part to economize on actors’ fees. So he carefully arranged their exits and entrances, providing ample opportunity for costume and scene changes. By the time of Otello Verdi was world famous and could command the resources he required. But at the time of Macbeth’s premiere in 1847, Verdi was limited by the resources of the commissioning theater, the Teatro alla Pergola in Florence.

He did not have available a first-class tenor, so the only major tenor role, Macduff, has only one aria, Ah, la paterno mano, although being Verdi, it is very fine. He did have available the finest baritone in Italy, Felice Varesi, for his Macbetto. He wanted the excellent soprano Sophia Löwe, but she was unavailable, recovering from an abortion. Instead Marianna Barbieri-Ninni, a fine singer, was cast as his Lady. She had the virtue (for Verdi) of being spectacularly unattractive visually, but she could sing Lady Macbeth’s music with the kind of menace and coarseness that Verdi wanted in the role.

Verdi’s Shakespeare is written in Wills’ typically graceful style. Reading it will reward lovers of the works of both great artists and casual opera fans as well. Although the book reflects considerable scholarship on Wills’ part, it is no turgid work of academic prose. Instead it can be read for pleasure and can only enhance our enjoyment of Verdi’s great operas, even as we regret that Verdi never accomplished the one unfulfilled dream of his career–Il re Lear.

 Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater
Garry Willis
Viking Press

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