(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York of Books 12/19.)
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
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.
Photo: Osbert Lancaster/De Agostini/Bridgeman Images/© Clare Hastings
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