Here and there -An Italian Composer and an English Playwright


Nearly twenty years ago, I attended the first of what would be many summer schools at Cambridge or Oxford.  It was at Oxford and the subject was Verdi and Shakespeare.  The tutor was a very entertaining musician who played the tuba.  According to my notes – which are far more extensive than those for later courses – George Bernard Shaw said that Othello was the only tragedy written as grand opera.  I well remember our analysis of the last act of Otello.  The tutor detected an application of the Golden Ratio (or Rule), or the Fibonacci Principle, in the last act.  My notes say a: b; b: a + b.  The numerical progression is, I think, 0, 1, 1, 3, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and 55.  That is how a pine cone is shaped.  It is hard to explain but easy enough to see in the layout of a Jeffrey Smart painting.  The question was: did Verdi consciously apply this ratio, or was this just an illustration of his native genius?  You will be happy to learn that we settled on the latter – possibly because we were struggling to understand the ratio itself.  As for Shaw’s remark, it sounds bright enough, but what does it signify?

Verdi read Shakespeare mostly in translation.  He venerated the playwright as a god.  He based three of his operas on the plays.

The first was Macbeth and that was composed before the full flowering of Verdi’s artHe thought that Macbeth was ‘one of mankind’s greatest creations.’  He wrote to London to find out how Banquo’s ghost was normally brought on stage.  He sketched out the opera and he usually left the orchestration until rehearsals.  Then at the ripe age of thirty-four, Verdi nearly drove his leads mad rehearsing the duet in the first act more than one hundred and fifty times.  It had to be more spoken than sung.  He behaved like a theatrical tyrant and well before Wagner, he had begun a revolution in the staging of opera.

In his biography, George Martin said that ‘Verdi is ‘unique in the roles he gave to baritones, and in a sense he created the voice.’

There was of course much in the opera that was exactly as expected.  There was a conspirators’ chorus, this time of assassins gathering to kill Banquo; a patriotic chorus of Scottish exiles which, as always, aroused great enthusiasm; and some jiggy witches’ music….To modern ears these parts of the opera sound dated and incongruous beside the more dramatic writing.  And if this mixture of styles kept Macbeth from being as great as Rigoletto or La Traviata, both of which came after it and were more of a piece, it probably also made it possible for the opera, as a very early venture into dramatic writing to survive at all.

But when someone accused Verdi of not knowing Shakespeare, he said:

Perhaps I did not render Macbeth well, but….Shakespeare is one of my favourite poets.  I have had him in my hands since my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.

Verdi had predicted that Macbeth would be a triumph and it was.  The locals were astonished at its despair and ferocity.  In Italy it was known ‘l’opera senza amore’ – the loveless opera.

Otello was written toward the end of Verdi’s life – after the death of Wagner.  Verdi admired the German, but he resisted the ‘infection’ of an Italian art form by ‘Germanism.’  He spent almost two years working on it.  It was to be his first new opera in sixteen years and widely thought to have been his last.  By cutting the first act of the play, Boito (the librettist) could set the entire action in Cyprus and make each act follow its predecessor almost exactly in time.

Not unusually, Verdi had trouble with his leads.  One tiff with the title role led Verdi to write a note to the conductor which reminded me of what I felt driven to say occasionally to counsel for the Crown in tax cases – ‘Do you think that you might persuade the tenor to perform something approximating to what has been laid down?’  We are told that the choice for Desdemona was not ideal, but that the conductor had an interest in her that was not exclusively musical.

The disintegration of Otello is ruthlessly presented – this is what makes both the play and the opera so difficult for some of the more squeamish of us to follow.  Verdi’s Desdemona is firmer and more modern.  When in the play Othello calls her false, she replies ‘To whom, my lord, with whom?  How am I false?’  In the opera she replies ‘I am honest’ and the stage direction is ‘looking firmly at him.’  For all I know, they may have had in mind the question that Hamlet posed to Ophelia, but there is a bit of #MeToo there.

Although the composition was very novel in many respects, Verdi made use of Italian operatic idioms, such as the storm scene, the victory chorus and the drinking song.  Nowadays someone would mumble some nonsense about bums on seats, but the consensus is and always has been that this work of art is a masterpiece.

Throughout his career, Verdi had to put up with censors – and idiots.  People said that an opera seria had to have a happy ending.  So, Verdi had to write a version where Desdemona persuades the Moor of her innocence.  Well, some drongo would do the same to King Lear.  We should not be surprised when fresh insults are offered all the time to the art of the greatest playwright the world has seen.  It’s like putting a fig leaf or condom on the David of Michelangelo, or some pink lippy on the Mona Lisa – select your own location.  Or – how would you like it if you rocked up to a concert of a late Beethoven string quartet, and the band turned up in black shirts, jackboots, Storm trackies – and tats?  Where is the moral right of the artist to be immune from this form of desecration?

The premiere was of course an event.  Tout le monde was there.  A nineteen year old from Parma played the second cello.  He was so moved that when he got home, he woke up his mother, told her that Otello was a masterpiece, got her out bed, and insisted that she kneel beside him and repeat ‘Viva Verdi.’  That young man was Arturo Toscanini.  The Italians, like all of us, can get a lot wrong, but there is a continuing thread to their gift of opera to the world.

The final opera was Falstaff.  Rossini had fed blood to a tiger when he said that ‘Verdi was incapable of writing a comic opera.’  Verdi spent years on the project, trying to keep it secret.  Although in his eightieth year, Verdi spent hours each day at rehearsals.  He reduced the opera to two episodes.  He conducted the first night.  It was at La Scala, with which Verdi had had at best an off and on relationship, and it was hailed as another masterpiece.  As someone correctly said, the whole cast is the star of Falstaff.

My attitude to Falstaff has changed over the years.  This character is mainly from The Merry Wives of Windsor and is quite unlike the ultimately unlovely hero of King Henry IV Parts I and II  – although Verdi did bring in parts of the speeches in the history plays.  Some might then see this opera as lightweight.  A stunning performance by the AO a few years back and constant replaying have made this opera now my favourite.  This for me now is music drama at its most evolved.  Eat your heart out, Waggers.

Wagner had claimed to have written a comedy in opera – Die Meistersinger.  Some time ago I was offered two of the best seats in the house to hear this work.  I declined them.  My back can no longer take that kind of punishment, and ‘comedy’ does not trip lightly off the lips with ‘Wagner’.  As Mr Martin reminds us, the whole of Falstaff takes less time in performance than the last act of Die Meistersinger.

As for recordings, if you don’t mind Lady Macbeth stealing the show – and I don’t in either the play (Harriet Walter completely changed the way I see it) or the opera – then the live La Scala 1952 recording with Callas and de Sabata is the go.  For Otello,  the RCA boxed set of Toscanini has his 1947 recording with Ramon Vinay, who was said to be the Otello, but I prefer the 1955 version of Serafin with Vickers and Gobbi – Jon Vickers had a power in his voice that young people would call awesome.  For Falstaff you must get the 1956 Karajan with Gobbo and Schwarzkopf.  Kant would have called it ‘transcendental.’

On many occasions, Verdi longed to try King Lear.   He believed that sixteenth century Elizabethan drama was very close to nineteenth century Italian opera.  There is oratorical blood and thunder, aria-like soliloquies, a storm scene, a mad scene, and the trumpets of royalty.  What more could he ask for?  Mascagni asked him why he had not gone ahead with this opera.  Verdi closed his eyes and replied slowly and softly: ‘The scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me.’  That was wise.  Too many directors are not scared enough.  In truth, the maestro knew the limitations of his art.  When his second wife died, Verdi said:

Great grief does not demand great expression; it asks for silence, isolation, I would even say the torture of reflection.  There is something superficial about all exteriorization; it is a profanation.

Plato would have been pleased.

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