Verdi adored Shakespeare. Besides the three operas he took from him—Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff—he considered (though briefly) doing a Tempest or Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. He considered for a very long time, and came near to creating, an opera from his favorite play, King Lear.1 He did not take lightly the duty of being true to Shakespeare. When he read the score of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, he said of the librettists, “Poor Shakespeare! How they have mistreated him!” He did not mean to mistreat the great dramatist himself.
Hundreds of operas were derived from Shakespeare’s plays—even more than from the works of Schiller, Goethe, or Walter Scott. Phyllis Hartnoll and her collaborators in Shakespeare in Music counted over 180 Shakespeare operas, but admitted they were missing some.2 The editors of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare claim the number is closer to three hundred.3 Most of the Shakespeare operas in nineteenth-century Italy, France, and Germany were taken from the plays indirectly, from parallel sources, or from poor translations. Rossini’s Otello (1816), for instance, was based on a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s own Italian source, Cinthio’s Hecatommitthi. Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830) came from a play by Luigi Scevola.4 Verdi was the first Italian composer who worked hard to get back to Shakespeare’s authentic text.
Verdi could not read English—though his wife, who helped him, could—but he carefully compared the latest and best recent translations (some made by his friends or acquaintances).5 He had not been to England when he composed Macbeth, but he had acquired, from friends like Andrea Maffei, solid information on the way Macbeth was staged in the country of its origin. For Macbeth, he cut the play down to opera size himself, creating a prose synopsis for his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, to versify. He was dissatisfied with Piave’s work, correcting it, adding suggestions, above all trimming it. He wanted no wasted words. He insisted to Piave, Poche parole! Poche parole! Poche parole! (Few words! Few words! Few words!) Finally, in his exasperation with Piave, he had his scholar friend Andrea Maffei, an expert translator, correct portions of the libretto.
Verdi worked himself so deeply into Shakespeare’s mind that in revising Macbeth for a Paris premiere, he took the gem of this performance—Lady Macbeth’s aria “La luce langue”—directly from Shakespeare, in collaboration with his wife: “Verdi himself actually wrote the text for this aria—not only the detailed prose version he first sent to [his librettist] Piave on December 15, but the verses themselves, to which the librettist made only a few minor changes.”
Most of the many operas made from Shakespeare’s plays are failures. Loose adaptations have been more successful—overtures, fantasias (like Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet), incidental music (like Mendelssohn’s for A…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.