Great Opera Scenes Based on Shakespeare

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 16-17 September, 2016 (Fri-Sat)


Verdi: Otello
Act I: Love Duet
Chen Chen, Tenor
Louise Kwong, Soprano

The opera opens with a violent storm. The people of Cyprus anxiously await their governor Otello — “the Moor” — who has been in a naval battle with the Ottomans. He strides victoriously onto the pier with a cry of “Rejoice!”. But all is not well in Cyprus. Iago, who has been passed over for promotion, is plotting against Otello, while Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, Otello’s young Venetian wife. Iago manipulates Cassio, the young man who was promoted in his place, into a drunken brawl. The resulting commotion rouses Otello — who furiously condemns and demotes Cassio — and wakes Desdemona.

After having sent everyone away, Otello turns to Desdemona and says that in the silence of deepening night, her embrace brings him peace and repose. She recalls his wooing of her, when he would tell her of his battles and misfortunes in exile, to which Otello replies with lines straight from Shakespeare: “And you loved me for the dangers I had pass’d, and I loved you that you did pity them.” He asks Desdemona for “a kiss” and upon being granted it, he requests “and yet another kiss.” They retire to the bedroom as Venus, the star and Goddess of Love, shines above them.

Had the opera ended there, it would not be a tragedy. But Iago isn’t done: Otello convinces himself that Desdemona is unfaithful with Cassio. “O beware, my lord, of jealousy,” Iago fatally prods Otello. The love duet is echoed in the opera’s dying chords as Otello proclaims to the wife he has just smothered: “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this; killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

Thomas: Hamlet
Act III: Monologue “Être ou ne pas être”
Act IV: Ophelia Mad Scene
Isaac Droscha, Baritone
Rebekah AuYeung₍₁₎, Soprano
Jessica Ng₍₂₎, Soprano

Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark has died, and his mother Gertrude has married Hamlet’s uncle Claudius who is in turn crowned King. Hamlet finds the proceedings unseemingly so soon after father’s death and is unable to partake of the festivities. He sees his father’s ghost on the ramparts, who informs him that Claudius had poisoned him.

Hamlet vows vengeance and although having convinced himself of Claudius’s guilt, nonetheless dithers: in Act III, he sings an aria which follows the lines of the famous “to be or not to be” monologue in the play.

Hamlet, who had previously sworn his love to Ophélie (Ophelia), now rejects her — “Allez dans un cloître”; “Get thee to a nunnery” — for he has discovered that her father Polonius was also complicit in the murder. Ophélie, devastated, goes mad. Bedecked in flowers, she sings the mad scene — “A vos jeux, mes amis, permettez-moi de grâce de prendre part!” : “Let me join in your games, my friends”. She protests Hamlet’s fidelity before drowning herself in the lake.

The opera ends with all the protagonists — save Hamlet, depending on the version — dead by poison, sword or dagger.

Gounod: Roméo et Juliette
Act II Love Duet: Balcony Scene
Frankie Liu₍₁₎, Tenor
Samuel Huang₍₂₎, Tenor
Joanne Shao₍₁₎, Soprano
Harmony Chen₍₂₎, Soprano

Act I of the opera is a party for Juliette, a masked ball. Roméo, being from an enemy family, is not supposed to be there. But he meets Juliette and they are immediately attracted to each other.

In Act II, Roméo hides outside her balcony, watching as Juliette stares into the night, thinking of him. He sings “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” — “Arise, fair sun” — one of the most celebrated tenor arias in French opera. This leads to a love duet, which closely follows the original play. Roméo decries his name which separates them, and they swear their love to each other. Taking their leave, the duet ends with “de cet adieu si douce est la tristesse”: “parting is such sweet sorrow”.

They marry in secret the next day but the enmity of the Capulets and Montagues continues unabated. Roméo kills Tybalt in a brawl, for which he is banished. After one night of love, Juliette is informed by her father that she must marry Count Paris. She takes a sleeping draught to feign death, a ruse that Roméo, alas, believes — he drinks poison. Juliette awakes to find him dying; she falls upon his dagger.

Verdi: Macbeth
Act I, Scene 2, Murder of Duncan
Act IV, Scene 2, Sleepwalking Scene
Sammy Chien, Baritone
Colette Lam, Soprano

A group of witches has proclaimed to Macbeth that he will be King. He writes his wife, who is determined to propel her husband to the throne by whatever means necessary. The current King, Duncan, is by coincidence spending that very night in Macbeth’s castle: Lady Macbeth seizes upon the opportunity to have him killed.

The scene starts with Macbeth seeing a phantasmagorical dagger hanging in the air before him. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?” — “Mi si affaccia un pugnal!” He takes it as an omen, and goes off to kill the King. Lady Macbeth is there upon his return; Macbeth is overcome with horror at what he has done. His wife admonishes him for being feeble.

But the couple cannot shake off their guilt. As Macbeth fights a rebellion against his tyranny, his wife sleepwalks. Watched by a bemused doctor and lady-in-waiting, Lady Macbeth frantically rubs her hands to remove a stain of blood she imagines is still there: “Out, damned spot!” — “Una macchia è qui tuttora…”

Macbeth loses the battle and his life, and the couple is undone.

₍₁₎ 16/9 | ₍₂₎ 17/9
Synopsis provided by Peter Gordon.


Creative Team

Programme Note

Shakespeare goes to the Opera

Peter Gordon

No playwright has served as repeatedly as operatic inspiration as William Shakespeare. Giuseppe Verdi wrote three: Macbeth (1847, revised 1865), Otello (1887) and, at the grand old age of 80, Falstaff (1893). Gioacchino Rossini had an Otello of his own (1821), although it differs substantially from the play. A recently rediscovered Amleto by Franco Faccio (1865) rounds out the classical Italian contribution of the novecento. Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi tells the same story as Roméo et Juliette but it — like older versions of Giulietta e Romeo— is not based on Shakespeare but comes via a parallel path from the 16th-century Italian sources from which the English play is also ultimately derived.

Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (1867) is perhaps the most popular of all the adaptations. Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet dates from 1868; it curiously exists in two versions: Hamlet may be sung by either tenor or baritone. The librettos for both French operas were based not directly on Shakespeare but on French adaptations popular at the time. Hector Berlioz’s contemporaneous Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) is based on Much Ado about Nothing.

Opera’s fascination with Shakespeare continued in the 20th century, especially in English, with Frederick Delius, Benjamin Britten and, most recently, Thomas Adès all drawing inspiration from their national literary champion. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957) was a bridge to musical theatre, where Shakespeare, particularly Romeo and Juliet, found — from Paris to Broadway — yet another incarnation.

None of these are merely plays set to music. Plays of this complexity cannot be translated directly to opera: they have been streamlined with characters cut and action re-arranged. Verdi’s talented librettist Arrigo Boito, for example, dispenses with the Venice-set first act of Othello and transforms Othello’s monologue (“So justly… I’ll present how I did thrive in this fair lady’s love”) to the opera’s renowned First Act love duet “Già nella notte densa”. Arrigo also takes Othello’s final words — “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this; killing myself, to die upon a kiss” — and prefigures them in the love duet where Otello asks Desdemona for “un bacio”— a kiss — and then another, “ancor un bacio”.

Some of the liberties cannot but shock the literalist. Gounod’s Juliette is portrayed as older than thirteen (which may be just as well) and less the ingénue. And those who know the opera better than the play will look in vain for the scene in which Juliet wakes from her drug-induced sleep for her final good-byes with a dying Romeo. In the play, he is already stone cold dead. Gounod lets Romeo live for another quarter-hour so to permit a final love duet — this is opera after all. But after watching and hearing the final chords, who’s to say Gounod was wrong?

When once asked what separated Shakespeare and Gounod, I replied — after some thought — that in spite of changes in plot, the two work their effects entirely differently. Shakespeare, in spite of the heartfelt phrasing, enters through the head: his words force us to think and ponder. Gounod, on the other hand, goes straight to the heart: the music is a direct appeal to the emotions. A rather cutting reviewer of this year’s production in Chicago said that Gounod and his librettists “took Shakespeare to the patisserie”. While it is true that Roméo et Juliette is much prettier (and Catholic) than the original, lacking much of the Shakespeare’s earthiness and cynicism, the ending remains at least as heart-rending.

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most intellectual and psychological plays, subtle and ambiguous from start to end. Ambroise Thomas’s opera, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, who also wrote the libretto for Gounod, chose a French version of the play by Alexander Dumas, one best called an “adaptation” rather than a “translation”. Dumas evidently thought the Shakespeare needed some improvement.

The French Hamlet is much more a story of romantic love than the cerebral play. One key change is making Polonius, the father of Ophelia, now Ophélie, a co-conspirator in the murder, giving the Hamlet concrete grounds for rejecting her. Ophélie goes mad from rejection rather than the more complex causes laid out by Shakespeare.

Thomas even allows Hamlet to live and be crowned King at the end. There is an alternate — and more faithful — “dénouement du theater de Covent-Garden” ending composed by Thomas in the apparent belief that those familiar with the original play might take exception to a change which so strikingly misses the point.

So, despite of an aria that starts “Être ou ne pas être” — “To be or not to be” — Thomas’s Hamlet might have better been entitled Ophélie.

Giuseppe Verdi is the leader in the Shakespeare-as-opera stakes with six plays and three operas (Falstaff being a composite of three different plays). Macbeth was his first. Somewhat unusually, the protagonist is a baritone; the tenor role is relatively minor. Verdi had not experienced the play itself until after the opera had premiered, which may explain the considerable revisions he made for a new production in Paris in 1865.

Verdi takes Shakespeare’s three witches and makes a chorus of them — and one of the work’s three protagonists. Far from providing a love interest, the Macbeth couple are thoroughly unpleasant; they generate little affection and less sympathy. Lady Macbeth, who had previously proclaimed her husband an “ambizioso spirto” — a soul of ambition — later finds him, in the duet following the murder of King Duncan when Macbeth is assailed by remorse, “privo d’ardire”: bereft of boldness. She goes off to clean up the mess.

Verdi stays true to the dark spirit of the play, and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave kept many of the most famous lines, including Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot! out, I say!”, rendered here almost literally as “Una macchia è qui tuttora… Via, ti dico, o maledetta!…

Whatever it was that happened to Shakespeare 400 years ago, at least as far as opera is concerned, he didn’t “die”.