Shakespeare goes to the Opera
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”.