Making Shakespeare sing Music: 'Merry Wives of Windsor' was essentially a bust for the Bard. Verdi turned it on its ear, and the rest is operatic history.

October 15, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

One asks "Is it as good as the book?" whenever a popular piece of fiction becomes a movie. As relevant as that question is to films, it was just as pertinent more than a century ago to operas, the movies' predecessor as the spectacular entertainment of the middle class.

The question is rarely answered in the affirmative, particularly when the author of the book happens to be the greatest writer who ever lived. Thus it is something of a miracle that Giuseppe Verdi surpassed William Shakespeare when he wrote his final opera, "Falstaff," which opens tomorrow and runs through next week at the Lyric Opera House in a production by the Baltimore Opera Company.

Verdi -- who completed "Falstaff" in his 80th year in 1893 -- was no stranger to Shakespeare: The English playwright was his favorite writer, and he kept one of his two copies of the complete poems and plays by his bedside and never traveled without the other. Verdi's first unquestioned masterpiece was "Macbeth" (1847), and he returned triumphantly to Shakespeare 40 years later in "Otello."

But what distinguishes "Falstaff," which is based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor," from his previous excursions into Shakespearean territory is that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito (with whom the composer had collaborated on "Otello"), took one of the English dramatist's least characteristic plays and transformed it into a masterpiece that is, paradoxically, more truly Shakespearean than its Shakespearean source.

On the surface, there was nothing unusual about Verdi's interest in Shakespeare. To composers of opera in the 19th century, his plays had the combined appeal of the novels of John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton to today's filmmakers. Of his 36 plays, only six -- "Titus Andronicus," "Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the history plays "King John," "Henry VI," "Richard II" and "Henry V" -- have failed to attract an opera composer. No one knows exactly how many hundreds of times his plays have been converted into operas, but "The Tempest" alone has suffered through more than 30 such attempts.

Tried and abandoned

The difficulty of translating Shakespeare into opera -- only Verdi's three and, perhaps, Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" can be accounted successes -- has not deterred others from trying. Among the abandoned projects are Beethoven's "Macbeth," Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and the aborted "King Lear" projects of Verdi, Puccini and Debussy. Mendelssohn worked on "The Tempest" with three different librettists, one German, one French and one Italian. Sometimes bad luck had a hand: Mozart died immediately after accepting a libretto on "The Tempest," and Smetana went mad while composing "Twelfth Night."

There had been Shakespeare operas before the 19th century -- an adaptation of "The Tempest" in 1695 by Henry Purcell and one of "Timon of Athens" by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in 1696. But it was only in the 19th century that opera had developed sufficiently to cope with drama of Shakespearean sophistication and complexity.

Until that time, serious opera was an entertainment designed for aristocrats, whose principal interest was in the singers and (if there were any) ballet dancers. It consisted entirely of recitative and solo arias. Composers of comic opera in Italy had begun to develop the ensemble, but it was not until Mozart adapted these methods to a higher artistic purpose and the French Revolution altered its social basis that opera became capable of dealing with complex human subjects.

And it's easy to see why 19th-century composers were attracted to Shakespeare. With their explosive events, their bigger-than-life characters, their arialike soliloquies and their fantastical plots, Shakespeare's plays contain many of the qualities we call operatic.

When George Bernard Shaw wrote that "the truth is that instead of 'Otello' being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, 'Othello' is a play written in the style of Italian opera," he could just as well have been speaking of several other Shakespeare plays.

But as Ferrucio Busoni -- who had problems of his own transforming Christopher Marlowe's play "Dr. Faustus" into the opera "Doktor Faustus" -- once remarked: "What I desire from an opera text is not only that it conjures up music, but that it allows room for it [music] to expand."

There isn't much room for such expansion in Shakespeare's plays. For one thing, they are so musical in their use of language that they do not need music. Then there are the problems of the overabundance of themes and the complexities of fully developed multiple plots, such as those in "King Lear," Verdi's favorite play, which frustrated for 50 years the composer's efforts to turn it into an opera.

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