Matthew Aucoin is a composer and conductor. He is the Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. His new opera, Eurydice, will have its world premiere in Los Angeles in February 2020. (December 2019)
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
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 achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work.
No matter the form his music takes—from sparkling, quicksilver piano pieces to grand orchestral essays—there is across Debussy’s entire oeuvre an extraordinary unity of texture. Its essential quality is a spacious beauty, a lushness without thickness, which his biographer Stephen Walsh intelligently ascribes in part to Debussy’s preference for whole tones. Music whose basic interval is the whole tone—an interval of two half-steps, that is, two piano keys—is inherently spacious; there is more room for light to filter through. In Walsh’s words, “whole-tone harmony…lacks that onward push that we associate with tonal music.” This is another essential quality of Debussy’s music: late-Romantic harmonies that tend, in Wagner’s hands, to strain sweatily toward a climax are transformed through Debussy’s alchemy into mysterious floating oases, worth luxuriating in for their own sake.