Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater

  • Garry Wills
  • Viking
  • 240 pp.

From a prize-winning writer, a study of two geniuses who, together, have probably done more to shape modern theater than any other.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

“Verdi adored Shakespeare.” Those are the opening words of Garry Wills’s comparative study of the work of two geniuses who, together, have probably done more to shape modern theater than any other. In this, his first book delving into opera, Wills sees the composer and the playwright as first and foremost hands-on men of the theater who in many respects resembled one another. “All in all,” he says, “the blend of illusion and professionalism, of artifice and heightened reality, of soaring poetry and melodic ambition, makes the theater of Shakespeare and that of Verdi similar in many ways, obvious and hidden. I mean to explore those ways here.”

That a book on theater and opera should come from Wills surprised me more than its depth and insight. Wills, in his almost 40 published books, is an acclaimed journalist and commentator (he won the Pulitzer in 1993) who has specialized in U.S. politics and history and the Catholic Church. His only previous venture into theater came in 1995 with his Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Despite the novelty of the subject in Verdi’s Shakespeare, Wills’s writing is characteristically clear and marked with literate ping.

Wills’s focus is on comparing dramaturgies — the theatrical techniques and devices of the playwright and the composer — in two different but related arts. He examines four of Shakespeare’s plays (Macbeth, Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and to a lesser extent Henry IV) and the three Verdi operas based on them (Macbetto, Otello and Falstaff) and shows their similarity while illustrating the demands of their different genres.

Because of the need for singing and musical commentary from the orchestra, all three of the operas reduced and simplified Shakespeare’s stories, omitting characters, scenes, even whole acts. But, as Wills shows, Verdi consistently caught the psychological mood of the original plays in his music.

In Macbeth, for example, Shakespeare uses equivocation to convey the diabolic — the day is “foul and fair,” the battle is “won and lost,” the witches’ news “cannot be ill, cannot be good,” Lady Macbeth is unsexed. Even the comic scene with the Porter is replete with contradiction. As Wills notes, Verdi captures the conflict in his “dread chords of doom in the orchestra, followed by the cackling scampers of the witches, with crippled emphases on the offbeat” — music that is at war with itself.

Otello does without the entire first act of Othello. Verdi replaces it with the storm that opens the opera — “An organ rumbles throughout (three notes a semitone apart sounding simultaneously), piccolos dash out lightening streaks, horns howl like the wind, trumpets stutter, gongs strike, and bass drums thunder.” Otello overcomes the storm and arrives on shore to declare that he has defeated the enemy. His fiendishly difficult opening cry, the Esultate, carries him up to a high B natural (oddly, Wills only mentions the G sharp on the word l’orgoglio, “pride.”). Otello is immediately established as both heroic and eloquent, just as Othello is defined in Shakespeare by the first act of the play.

Falstaff presented more difficulties than the earlier operas. Verdi took the plot from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor but the character of Falstaff from Henry IV and appropriated a good deal of text, such as the honor monologue and Falstaff’s memories of himself as a page, from the latter play. Shakespeare’s charming rogue — forgiven by the audience for his skulduggery because of his charisma and effervescent humor — arguably comes more to life in Verdi’s music than in Shakespeare’s words. Wills spends pages showing us why the music works so well, nowhere more effectively than in his description of the second scene. He tells us that “the women … sing to their dancing 6/8 measure, the men plodding on in common time [i.e., 4/4], a tour de force to which Verdi adds, as a crowning touch, the arc of the lovers’ lyrical song thrown over the whole.” The result is many things going on at once, people expressing different ideas at the same time, yet all comprehensible to the audience, an effect not possible in spoken drama.

Wills correctly credits Arrigo Boïto, Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff, for much of the quality of both operas. Boïto, himself an opera composer (his Mefistofele is still performed regularly), read Shakespeare in English, understood Verdi intimately and possessed dramatic genius. His adaptation of Shakespeare, faithful to the poet and sometimes even to the meter of the original, turned The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, into a lyric masterpiece.

As Wills points out, unlike modern theater, the dominant forces in Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s day were not the playwright and the composer but the actors and the singers. Shakespeare, himself an actor, wrote to the strengths of the players he had available to him: the great Richard Burbage, the comic Will Kemp and the boy actor, John Rice, who almost certainly was the first Lady Macbeth. Verdi wrote for specific singers and coached them mercilessly. He deliberately chose unattractive performers for Macbetto to underscore the ugliness of the characters. For Otello, he had Boïto prepare the Otello Production Book specifying how the characters should be played. Verdi wrote the parts of Otello for the clarion tenor Francesco Tamagno and Jago (as it is spelled in Italian) for the great French baritone, Victor Maurel, and then went on to badger them constantly about their phrasing. Shakespeare probably devised the character of Falstaff for Will Kemp, a powerful and energetic man, suggesting that although Falstaff is aging, he is still virile. Verdi entrusted his Falstaff to Maurel, who almost caused the cancellation of the entire project by demanding exorbitant fees.

Neither Shakespeare nor Verdi, Wills implies, wrote for posterity. Each was a hard-headed man of the theater driven by a desire for contemporary success. They were, in other words, much like J. S. Bach, the harried church musician, who wrote for next week’s service. Shakespeare and Verdi, like Bach before them, happened to be geniuses.

I do Wills an injustice by quoting so few samples of his writing. Throughout, he demonstrates an innate understanding of drama and music and how they can work together. His analysis of melody, harmony and orchestration are as solid as his examination of theatrical practice and technique. And his research is thorough. He draws on the considerable store of data unearthed by others, citing in his more than one hundred footnotes a veritable Who’s Who of opera and theater scholars.

My one complaint about the book is that after Wills finishes his study of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Falstaff, he stops writing. I wanted a concluding section, to balance the opening Introduction, which offered overall observations resulting from the detailed inquiry. Wills, with his wisdom and long experience, could have left us with words worth remembering.

Tom Glenn, a writer, composer and presenter on opera, received a B.A. in music from the University of California more years ago than he is willing to admit.

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