No composer has more successfully set Shakespeare to music more often than Giuseppe Verdi, with his early, fascinating and uneven Macbeth and his two final masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. This is a remarkable feat, especially given that Verdi spoke no word of English. As comparison, one might point out that Benjamin Britten, the greatest of modern English opera composers, a man renowned for his ability to set the language to music, only once created a Shakespeare opera, his marvellous Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theatre, Garry Wills proposes that one key reason for the success of Verdi’s adaptations is that both he and Shakespeare worked under similar conditions. As Wills's subtitle indicates, both were men of the theatre, working in specific conditions under which they created their works for particular casts whose abilities they could count on, in theatres whose methods they intimately understood, allowing them to craft theatrically effective works through sheer experience and technique. (These facts, incidentally, also apply to Britten, and may explain the excellence of his Dream.) The similarities between the two theatrical worlds these men worked in help to explain the apparent ease with which the three plays were transmuted into three operas.
Only apparent, however, because as Wills is at pains to point out, Verdi worked hard to try and make his operas match their sources, working closely with his librettists to achieve the precise effect he required. Verdi paid close attention to every detail of his work, from the first words down on paper to coaching his singers and restraining them from their worst habits in favour of a style that would suit his dramatic conception. Enough of Verdi’s letters survive to show us exactly how he thought the operas should be performed – as well as how many modern-day staging norms run completely contrary to his wishes (not least Jago’s habit of adding an Evil-Overlord ‘muahahahaha’ at the end of his Credo).
Thanks to the existence of Verdi’s correspondence, we can build a clear picture of the composition and rehearsal of his operas, which is of course not true of Shakespeare’s plays. Nevertheless, enough can be inferred from what we do know of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre practice that Wills is able to set up parallels between the two. The book’s title is earned, however: it is very much a book about Verdi rather than one about Shakespeare, if only because the documentary record is so much fuller for the former.
Turning a play into an opera, no matter how poetic the play, will always require a great deal of cutting, simply because music takes longer to achieve its effects, and Wills takes a detailed look at just how Verdi and his librettists achieved this. The question of what to cut and what to add, and the reasoning behind these, forms a major component of the book. The best example is perhaps Otello, which famously loses the entire first act of Othello, but gives Jago (as it is spelt in Italian) a nihilistic meditation somewhat explaining his evil. But the rearrangement of what is lost is also noticeable. In Falstaff, Verdi’s take on The Merry Wives of Windsor, his librettist Arrigo Boito added extracts of Falstaff’s best passages from the Henry IV plays. In Otello, we are given the greatest love duet in all opera, the text of which is taken from the first act of the play, where Othello explains how he wooed Desdemona. It has been argued, in fact, that in doing so Boito and Verdi improved on the play, by giving the audience a moment of witnessing that the two do in fact love one another.
Wills’s detailed exploration of the logic of such choices is only a part of his book, though. Easily written, never venturing into musical or Shakespearean esotericism, Verdi’s Shakespeare is a pleasure to read, clearly the work of an engaged intelligence looking at two of its great joys in life. As he passes from a close examination of the plays to Verdi’s interpretation of them, from the personalities of Verdi’s singers to the troubles of getting the aging composer to work again, from the prior operas on the same topics whose reputations Verdi had to overcome, mentioning in passing recordings he has heard and performances he has seen, we are never in doubt of either the potential breadth of the subject or of Wills’s grasp of it. While this is not the definitive work on the subject, in the sense that it is not exhaustive, it is more than a mere introduction. This is not to say that it is flawless: erudite though he is, Wills in not an expert in either subject, and his blithe interpretations of Shakespeare’s works in particular are at times grating. His repeated insistence that Lady Macbeth’s line ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?’ must be sung – to the extent of referring to it at one point as a ‘Scottish ballad’ – is particularly irritating. But these are matters more likely to set the teeth of the specialist on edge than those of the general reader. All in all, this is a fine and valuable book that should find a cozy spot on the bookshelves of any amateur of both Shakespeare and opera.