• Print
  • TWEET

Making Shakespeare Sing

Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020
Scenography by Osbert Lancaster for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955
Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings
Scenography by Osbert Lancaster for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at the Edinburgh Festival, 1955

The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.

Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, the Shakespearean diptych of Otello and Falstaff, together constitute my favorite case study in what happens when a play is made to stand up and sing. Both the source material and the musical adaptations are works of singular beauty and power. To study these operas alongside their sources is to see what is gained and what is lost, what remains intact and what is transformed, when a complex human drama is adapted from speech into song. Otello is an exceedingly rare breed, practically a unicorn: a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. And Falstaff, a long-pent-up belly laugh of a piece that Verdi unleashed on the world after a lifetime of composing tragedies, achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work, putting Sir John Falstaff center stage in a work that’s big and bold enough for his irrepressible, irresponsible spirit.

These two operas are the subject of “Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff,” a gem of an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Curated by Gabriele Dotto, the former director of publishing at Ricordi, Verdi’s publishing house, it affords an engrossing glimpse of the vast collaborative effort required to bring an opera into the world. By the time he wrote Otello and Falstaff, Verdi was a national icon, as famous and familiar as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and it is touching to see evidence of the care that a huge team—engravers, printers, costume designers, painters—put into the creation of this old man’s uncannily youthful last works.

Verdi loved Shakespeare throughout his life, but it took decades for his music to become Shakespearean. He came of age during what has become known as the bel canto period of Italian opera, during which the glorification of the human voice was composers’ fundamental priority; bel canto literally means “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing.” Works from this era—by composers such as Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti—are distinguished by long, sensuously unspooling melodies and passages of fast, florid vocal gymnastics; the harmonic palette is simple and the harmonic progressions few and familiar. An aesthetic whose central focus is the wonder of the beautifully produced voice inevitably lets some other aspects of the art form fall by the wayside: one generally doesn’t turn to a bel canto opera for an evening of taut, seamless drama.

Verdi’s early operas adhere, to varying degrees, to the idiom’s structural conventions, and he had all the skills required to develop into a great bel canto composer: crucially, the unteachable gift of inventing a melody that sounds inevitable, as though it had existed since the beginning of time. It is apparent even in Verdi’s earliest works, however, that he was not entirely at home within bel canto’s stylistic strictures. From the beginning, his music speaks with a blunt dynamism that demands different forms, different rules, a more flexible musical and dramatic language. Within the walls of the bel canto forms he inherited, the music of the young Verdi snarls and paces like a caged lion.

Verdi’s first Shakespeare adaptation, Macbeth, precedes his next, Otello, by forty years, and his artistic growth across those decades makes all the difference. The Verdi Macbeth is deliciously campy, a bloody prime cut of Italian opera, but it is hardly Shakespearean. The play is Shakespeare’s shortest, tautest tragedy, a headlong descent that moves with the swiftness and the logic of nightmare. Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, were still beholden to certain inflexible bel canto conventions—long, static arias, grand choruses—and they do not quite find a musical equivalent for the play’s ferocious momentum. Some of the play’s strangest and most effective features become, in the opera, unintentionally funny: the witches’ music is perky and tuneful; the final assault on Dunsinane Castle takes the form of clunky, four-square brass counterpoint; and a few beloved lines from Shakespeare are awkwardly torn—or “untimely ripp’d”—from their context. Macbeth, upon being informed of his wife’s death, skips the entirety of the brooding “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech and jarringly jumps straight to its climax: “What does life matter? It is a tale told by a poor idiot—wind and sound, signifying nothing!”

The opera’s most glaring shortcoming is its depiction of the title character, who sounds pale and unmemorable next to the juggernaut of a soprano role that is Lady Macbeth. It’s not surprising that Verdi found her riveting—who doesn’t?—but the difference between her music and Macbeth’s is striking; the two roles could have been written decades apart. For Lady Macbeth’s first entrance, Verdi had the inspired idea of having her speak, not sing, the letter from her husband telling her he has been named Thane of Cawdor, before erupting into a blazing, incantatory a cappella line, a musical summons from the depths of hell. Later in the opera, her sleepwalking scene seethes with a languorous, hallucinatory intensity; a great singer can give it both an erotic charge and an eerie, childlike purity. Macbeth, by contrast, makes his first entrance with a stolid, musically unremarkable recitative, and his aria in the final act is one of Verdi’s rare theatrical missteps: as his world falls apart around him, Macbeth pauses the action to sing “Pietà, rispetto, amore,” a slow and mournful cantabile aria whose emotional content is so generic it might as well be the aria of a proud father, or an old man nostalgically recalling a lost love, or really anyone at all other than the play’s unforgettably bloodthirsty protagonist.

An essential feature of Shakespeare’s art is his characters’ psychological dynamism: in his plays, a soliloquy is not the static articulation of something the character already knows; rather, it is the locus of change, of self-interrogation and epiphany. This volatility is fundamentally at odds with the nature of the bel canto aria, which typically embodies a single state of being. For an opera to feel Shakespearean, it needs to enact, in the music, the radical instability of the characters’ inner worlds. By this measure, Verdi’s music took on a Shakespearean vitality not in Macbeth but in the string of operas that followed it, none of which has Shakespeare as its source.

In Rigoletto, for example, the title character’s searing aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!” follows a complex yet organic trajectory. It begins with Rigoletto’s outburst of blind rage against the men who have abducted his daughter, the strings repeating a ferocious sextuplet figure as though straining against an invisible leash. When this fails, Rigoletto changes his tack and abjectly begs his tormentors, the music limping woundedly along; when this, too, fails to achieve anything, he collapses and sings a heartrending lament. The first two sections are in minor keys; in a harmonic turn worthy of Schubert, the third section, the only one in a major key, is the saddest of all. This aria is an X-ray of Rigoletto’s soul, and it’s more Shakespearean than anything in Verdi’s Macbeth; in his volatility, vulnerability, and pathos, Rigoletto resembles no one so much as King Lear.

Verdi’s oeuvre is full of subtly ingenious formal innovations like the “Cortigiani” aria, but he was modest to the point of self-effacement about his ever-deepening musical sophistication. He was hardly the type to publicly advertise an artistic quantum leap, as his contemporary Richard Wagner did by establishing a cult-like festival of himself at Bayreuth; his music evolved so gradually that it was possible not to notice that he was steadily and surely chipping away at convention after convention. There is a tortoise-and-the-hare dynamic to the Verdi-Wagner rivalry, and by the time Wagner died in 1883, Verdi the septuagenarian tortoise was, improbably, about to enter his prime. Having spent four decades slowly, irreversibly changing Italian opera—with the plays of Shakespeare as a constant companion and inspiration—he was finally ready to return to Shakespeare, and to repay his artistic debt to the Bard.

He could not have done this alone. Verdi was coaxed out of his self-imposed retirement by the polymath Arrigo Boito, a composer-poet-librettist whose compositional career is a cautionary tale for the overambitious. The Verdi-Boito collaboration of the 1880s would have been unthinkable two decades earlier, when the twenty-something Boito infuriated Verdi by claiming, in a satirical poem, that contemporary Italian music was “soiled like the wall of a brothel”; Verdi was not named in the poem, but he was the country’s most prominent composer, and he took personal offense. Verdi also had no time for Boito’s rapturous writings on art. It’s easy to see why, as his prose tends toward the deep purple:

Indeed, the Sublime is simpler than the Beautiful…. Only the great form is suited to the Sublime, the eternal, universal, divine form: the spherical form. The horizon is sublime, the sea is sublime, the sun is sublime. Shakespeare is spherical, Dante is spherical, Beethoven is spherical…

When a friend showed Verdi this article, his reaction was curt and irrefutable: “Fine things!! Too bad I don’t understand them…. [To] write music one very simple thing is needed: Music.”

Indeed, for all his sermonizing, there isn’t much music in Boito’s music, which is somehow both inflated and flabby, seemingly guided by hazy poetic ideals rather than inner musical logic. His opera Mefistofele had a disastrous premiere in 1868; surely it didn’t help that Boito had published pompous, self-aggrandizing artistic manifestos in the preceding years. How karmically satisfying, then, that roughly a decade later, a chastened and markedly more self-aware Boito recognized that his gifts as a poet, coupled with his musical experience, would make him an exceptional librettist for other composers. He ultimately found the considerable humility required to approach Verdi, a composer he had once underestimated, with the enticing idea of adapting Shakespeare’s Othello.

It’s revealing that Verdi and Boito originally intended to call their opera Iago, and it’s more revealing still that they ultimately called it Otello. Boito had already revealed his sympathy for the devil by naming his opera Mefistofele rather than Faust, and Iago is even more essential to Othello than Mephistopheles is to the Faust story. Iago is a psychological black hole, a scene-stealer who ends up stealing the whole play: he speaks more lines than Othello; he orchestrates the drama’s entire tragic trajectory. Why not acknowledge, in the title, that he’s the star?

Verdi finally decided that Otello had to remain the title character; his stated reason was that Otello is the one who acts, who kills Desdemona and himself. But the reasons go deeper than this. Verdi’s personality, in music if not in life, is palpably similar to Otello’s. The salient qualities of his music include a disarming emotional directness and vulnerability, an earnestness and single-mindedness that preclude all irony, and a capacity for overwhelming passion, majesty, and power. These are also the fundamental qualities of Otello’s personality, and if there were ever a role Verdi was born to set to music, it’s this one. The result is that Otello is even more fully realized and more heartbreaking in Verdi’s opera than he is in Shakespeare.

As one example among many, take Otello’s first entrance. To cut the play down to libretto size, Verdi and Boito shrewdly eliminated its entire first act, beginning the opera with Otello’s arrival in Cyprus during a storm. In Shakespeare, once he has come ashore, Othello first greets Desdemona and then, in passing, offhandedly addresses the assembled crowd: “News, friends; our wars are done, the Turks are drown’d.” A single line of pentameter is all this rather important bulletin gets. Verdi puts this aside center stage and explodes it into a thrilling musical moment. The opera opens with the chorus anxiously watching Otello’s ship navigating the storm; to Iago’s disappointment, the ship makes it safely to port, and Otello enters with a triumphant greeting: “Esultate!” (“Rejoice!”). After the storm music’s blustery, chilly chromatic instability, Otello’s burnished D-flat major shines like a beacon; with a great tenor singing Otello, you’ll feel a warmth spread through your body at his entrance. In Shakespeare, we are always hearing about Othello’s heroism, but in Verdi, we feel it.

The famously fraught racial dynamic of the play is somewhat less pronounced in the opera, largely because of the omission of Shakespeare’s first act. In that act, Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, publicly denounces Othello and Desdemona’s love affair; in the opera, his role is omitted entirely, and we have little sense of the obstacles Otello and Desdemona had to surmount to have a relationship at all. In Boito’s libretto, it is Iago who voices nearly all the racially charged statements—for example, referring to Otello as a “savage” with “swollen lips”—and as a result, there’s a persistent association of such slurs with his general despicableness.

In spite of this, it is the opera rather than the play that has been in the spotlight in recent years, because some opera houses—to the art form’s general disgrace—have been maddeningly slow to abolish the practice of darkening the skin of white singers who perform the role. And though African-American singers have long made up an exceptionally large proportion of opera’s leading artists, curiously few African-American tenors have performed Otello in prominent theaters. (The gifted, golden-voiced tenor Russell Thomas, a skilled Verdian, has happily begun singing the role in recent seasons.) When it comes to Verdi’s musical characterization of Otello, however, I hear sympathy and subtlety rather than stereotyping: of all Verdi’s tragic protagonists, Otello might be the richest and most fully realized.

Otello’s presence is magnified in the opera, but Iago’s is diminished, and this reveals something essential about the difference between speech and music. Iago operates by implication and insinuation. He is among Shakespeare’s most virtuosic talkers, accomplishing diabolical feats of persuasion within an exquisitely subtle affective palette that ranges from poisoned-honey sweetness to chummy good humor to apparent indifference (this last tone being his deadliest weapon). Iago’s slippery prolixity makes him an awkward fit for Verdi, a composer who demanded, of an earlier librettist, “Poche parole” (“Few words”) to achieve maximum dramatic impact, and whose greatest musical strength is his emotional honesty. Has there ever been a more earnest composer than Verdi, or one whose musical language is so free of irony? Shakespeare’s Iago is terrifying because he is a chameleon—“I am not what I am”—but Verdi’s music can never be anything other than what it is. He does not find a musical equivalent either for Iago’s limitless capacity for verbal improvisation or his genius for blending in.

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi; drawing by David Levine

This is hardly a fatal flaw. Iago’s big solo moment, the “Credo,” has an irresistible heavy-metal bravado, and the sequence during which Iago convinces Otello of Desdemona’s infidelity is a white-hot tour de force. Listen to the toxic lullaby Iago croons into Otello’s ear just when he knows Otello has passed a psychological point of no return; listen to the way Iago, again and again, leads the harmonies through thickets of chromatic development, only to let Otello step into his trap and complete the progression. One of Iago’s finest moments is a cruel musical joke: instructing Otello how he should murder his wife, he says Otello should strangle her in bed, “dove ha peccato” (“where she sinned”). Verdi sets those words to a descending line that is nearly identical to Otello’s crucial line “ancora un bacio” (“one more kiss”), from his love duet with Desdemona. The role is full of moments like this, but the total impression of Verdi’s Iago is of an unctuous, sneering Italian-opera villain rather than the transcendent nihilist who stalks the stage in Shakespeare.

Of the three principal roles, Desdemona is least altered through the precarious journey from speech into song; she possesses a quiet strength in Shakespeare and Verdi alike. And her role contains a moment that is among my two or three favorites in all of opera. In the final act, after singing the haunting “Willow Song,” she turns to her maid, Emilia, to wish her good night. As Emilia turns to leave, the orchestra softly repeats the same warm major chord, which throbs strangely, like something unsayable rising to the throat and falling back again and again. Finally, the dam bursts and Desdemona unleashes a tidal wave of sound, this time singing not “buona notte” but “addio”—“farewell.” It is an overwhelming release of energy—terror, love, and grief pouring out with devastating force. When Desdemona sings this line, we realize that the entire “Willow Song” scene had been an act of repression, an ultimately hopeless attempt to distract herself; and we feel with painful clarity that she knows exactly what is in store for her.

Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, is often praised in lofty terms, as the crowning achievement of a great career. I prefer to see it as something both more human and more special: to me it sounds less like the apex of Verdi’s work up to that point and more like an experimental first step in a new direction. The nearly eighty-year-old Verdi wrote this opera in secret, without a commission; after Otello, his public and even his publishers assumed he had retired for good. Evidently, he was liberated by this lack of expectations. The seemingly world-weary master tragedian delighted in revealing to the world that he had somehow preserved an impish, joyously childlike energy throughout his six-decade career.

Falstaff is the anti-Iago, and therefore profoundly similar to him; the two roles make similar vocal demands, and were written with the same singer, Victor Maurel, in mind. Falstaff’s contrapuntal finale is the counterweight to Iago’s “Credo”: in this scene, Falstaff leads the assembled cast and chorus in his credo, that life is one big joke, and “he laughs well who laughs last.” For all its exuberance, this philosophy bears an unnerving resemblance to Iago’s nihilism. Near the end of the finale, the chorus and orchestra cut off abruptly, and Falstaff sings the words “Tutti gabbati” (“We’re all fools”) with a kind of menacing glee. This moment has an exact analogy near the end of Iago’s “Credo,” when he sings his own a cappella proclamation: “La morte è il nulla” (“Death is nothingness”). The crucial difference is that in Falstaff, a chorus of Falstaff’s fellow human beings hears his words and cheerfully echoes them. Iago remains alone, echoed only by the hysterical laughter of the orchestra.

Falstaff is full of wonderfully weird musical ideas: the brassy, slapstick orchestral writing sounds like an illustrious ancestor of mid-twentieth-century cartoon soundtracks, and the opera’s third act features some beguilingly gossamer “fairy” music, a scene of people pretending to be spirits but who sound truly magical. As in Mozart’s comic operas, the most breathtaking moments in Falstaff are those in which a scene of low comedy becomes, in an instant, inexplicably sublime. When the “merry wives” read Falstaff’s love letter aloud in order to make fun of it, one of them, Alice Ford, transforms one particularly pompous phrase into a long, stunningly beautiful cantabile line. And then, as suddenly as it appeared, Verdi pops the bubble with a burst of sharp, staccato laughter. What more can any composer hope for than the ability to write music of overwhelming beauty, and then, in an instant, to turn on a dime and laugh at oneself?

The Morgan’s exhibition is a treasure trove for Verdi lovers. There is a skeletal draft, in Verdi’s hand, of a scene from the third act of Otello that is notably different from its final version; there’s the first page of the autograph manuscript of Falstaff’s final fugue; there are first-edition scores of both operas and gorgeous early editions of their libretti. There is also a fascinating “production book,” which contains diagrams and written instructions by Verdi for how to replicate La Scala’s original staging of Otello in other theaters. (The numerous characters and choristers are represented by tiny circles with arrows attached, like virile little Mars symbols.) The exhibition’s stated intention is to display the “tremendous collaborative efforts behind an operatic production,” and indeed the lavish undertaking that supported these pieces’ premieres is enough to make a twenty-first-century composer sick with envy. There is even a video, produced by the Italian government in the 1920s as part of a series focusing on Italy’s major industries, that shows the engraving process at Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher; the score that we see being printed is Otello. Imagine any US administration—never mind the current one—treating a classical music publisher as one of the country’s industrial powerhouses!

In spite of the exhibition’s delights, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it is also a missed opportunity. Visitors who do not already know and love these pieces might get the sense that they are frozen in time, stuck in the elaborate, painterly theatrical aesthetic of the late nineteenth century. There is no reference to the troubled history of Otello and racial issues, and the only contemporary items on display are, tellingly, two recent costumes from La Scala that seem to merely copy the style of the first productions of Otello and Falstaff and a video screen that plays excerpts from recent stagings of the two operas, with no information provided other than where and when the performances took place. The gallery space hardly feels crowded; there would have been room to consider, from a broader angle, the history of these operas’ reception and interpretation. Illuminating as it is to see artifacts from the moment of their conception, I wish this exhibition had allowed us to also witness their ongoing life. These are living, breathing musical organisms, and their relevance, founded on an unflinching, sympathetic understanding of the human psyche, is also ongoing. But it takes work—and even a little Verdian shrewdness—to sustain and renew that relevance.