Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater

Garry Wills . Viking, $25.95 (220p) ISBN 978-0-670-02304-2
Opera aficionados will delight in Wills's (Outside Looking In) thoughtful, deeply rehearsed essays on Verdi's treatment of Shakespeare's plays. Both the Elizabethan playwright and the 19th-century composer were steeped in the language and logistics of the theater, and both tailored their work for the performers at hand. Shakespeare created his characters in Macbeth, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor especially for leading actor Richard Burbage, who doubled for parts in the same play, as all the players did, with boy actors assuming the women's roles; Verdi partly chose to do Macbeth because it required a strong baritone, which the Florence Teatro della Pergola had, rather than a leading tenor, which the theater did not. Wills looks closely at how each director handled scenes of witchcraft—more challenging for the skeptical 19th-century audience—and Verdi's neat, dramatic compression of events in the plays. Verdi employed for the operas Otello and Falstaff his masterly, much younger librettist, Arrigo Boito, whose boldness and vibrant ideas "reinvigorated the Maestro's creative force." Their collaboration towered over Rossini's gold-standard Otello, notes Wills, especially in beginning the opera with an apocalyptic storm and creating for Otello and Desdemona a love duet, and in later fashioning an inventive composite Falstaff as a "a force of nature." Wills's detailed depictions of the operas' subtleties, sublimely rendered for opera fans—perhaps tedious for other readers—endlessly elucidate the work of these "creative volcanoes." (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 07/18/2011
Release date: 10/01/2011
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