‘Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive
“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,” writes Matthew Aucoin. “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.”
“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!”
For more information, visit the morgan.org.
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