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Verdi & Shakespeare

Josh Borths – March 11, 2016

Giuseppe Verdi loved Shakespeare. Although he never learned English, Verdi— through Italian translation—found a kindred spirit in the English Bard. After all, despite living centuries apart, each man contributed to their respective art forms in comparable ways. Just as Shakespeare revolutionized the English play through his brilliant manipulation of existing theatrical conventions, Verdi forever changed Italian opera by infusing old musical formulae with real, specific characters and drama.

In 1847, Macbeth, the first Shakespearean opera Verdi composed, premiered in Florence. In Macbeth, Verdi turned famous Shakespearean monologues into tour de force arias, and today we still turn to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene to revel in Verdi’s early dramatic flair. It is no accident that Macbeth, a passion project for Verdi, has remained in the operatic canon. It seemed to take a Shakespearean adaptation for him to start defining his operatic style.

Even though Verdi would not adapt another Shakespearean play until 1887, 40 years after the premiere of Macbeth, Shakespeare remained a major source of inspiration for the popular Italian composer. In fact, Verdi regularly worked on sketches for an opera based on King Lear. Unfortunately for us, Verdi never met a singer up to the task of portraying the diminished king and the project was never completed.

Verdi and Shakespeare: Kindred Spirits

When Verdi saw Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, he was immediately drawn to the Shakespearean quality of the hunchbacked jester. 
The tale of a naïve, young girl, an amoral king (or duke), and vengeful father reminded Verdi of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Verdi, therefore, took special care to give each of these characters specific music that changed as the characters grew and developed. It is no coincidence that the opera, renamed Rigoletto, would become the first great success of Verdi’s “middle period” of composition, and represent a major step forward in his artistic oeuvre.

Verdi withdrew from public life after writing Aida and his Requiem. He intended to instead focus on farming his estate outside Busseto, Italy. No matter how hard his public and publishers tried to coax him out of retirement, it seemed that Verdi was finally finished with opera. However, when a fiery operatic reformer, Arrigo Boito, proposed a new adaptation based on Othello, Verdi secretly began composing. The opera premiered in 1887 and Otello was an absolute triumph. This opera represented yet another monumental leap forward in Verdi’s compositional style.

With Otello complete, Verdi was even more reluctant to compose for the stage. Verdi, now in his 70s, was wary of the energy required to write another opera and fearful that he would not be able to complete the work. Boito persisted, however, and brought another subject to the aging master: the great Shakespearean comic, Falstaff. Verdi hesitated. He did not want Boito to spend his time working on an opera he wasn’t sure could be finished. However, when Verdi saw the libretto, he was inspired once more.

The Making of Falstaff

The character of Falstaff first appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 as the aging knight who teaches the young Prince Hal to be boisterous and bold. As the story goes, Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted by the character that she suggested to Shakespeare that Falstaff receive his own play. This request resulted in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play, while funny and fun, is often regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weakest efforts, which Boito saw as an opportunity to not just match Shakespeare, as they had with Otello, but surpass him. By streamlining the narrative, and transplanting monologues from Henry IV into the antics of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Boito created a masterful libretto.

When Falstaff finally premiered in 1893 in Milan, the public again discovered a new side to Verdi: his sense of humor. Verdi only wrote one other comedy in his career, Un giorno di regno, which was a complete disaster. He vowed to never again write for laughs. Yet, as he aged and mellowed, the transcendence of comedy began to appeal to him. Verdi realized that sometimes it is a nobler goal to make people smile than to make them cry.

Falstaff is a true ensemble opera and its music equality and difficulty probably account for its relative obscurity; divas are not often drawn to Falstaff. In his final work, however, Verdi brings the joy of the human experience to Italian opera. Verdi died in 1901—yes, Verdi saw the turn of the 20th century—and though Falstaff was the last music he wrote, he was content with the opening belches of the orchestra, the battle of the sexes, the nostalgia of the young lovers, the bombast of the title character, and final fugue where he reminds