Operatic History through a Shakespearean Lens

William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)

Today I’d like to list (quite arbitrarily and subjectively) the ten greatest operas out of the many inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare.

Why Shakespeare? Because he has proven irresistible to so many great composers and librettists. He offers them, after all, a compendium of readymade, popularly known plots, characters, and images. Thus, invoking Shakespeare will serve us as an organizing principle to look at the development of opera as an art form over two centuries. To that end, I’ll offer these ten operas in chronological order, which will have the side effect of freeing me from the obligation of saying which of these is the greatest.

Surely no great operatic composer was quite as thoroughly in the Bard’s debt as Giuseppe Verdi. He’ll show up on this list three times, for his Macbeth, his Otello and his Falstaff.

But other names at the heart of the operatic canon are on this list, too: Rossini, Bellini, and Berlioz. I might mention that I am not including Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, because the titular Shakespearean allusion may seem to some tacked-on, not really worked out in the plot. Also, I believe I did justice to that fine work in an earlier post here. I’m also excluding West Side Story, the great Broadway re-enactment of the story of Romeo and Juliet, just for the sake of taking a stringent view of what counts as an opera.

Perhaps it is time for me to stop describing this list and the start providing it. For each item below I will provide in order the name of the opera, the year it was first staged, the conductor, and the librettist, and then a few words of description or context.


1. Otello (1816) – Gioachino Rossini, Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi

After Rossini’s great success with a comic opera [Il Barbiere di Siviglia, also first produced in 1816] he turned to graver themes. And nothing could be more sobering than Shakespeare’s story of a man who murders his wife in a jealous rage brought on by a conniving false friend.

All operas based on Shakespeare’s work take liberties with the original. They must: the nature of opera allows for very little by way of complexity or character development, so elements are always simplified or just cut entirely. The closest thing to an exception, as we’ll see below, has been the Britten adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which with its magical world and broadly-drawn characters is probably the most operatic of the Bard’s works to begin with.

In Othello, which may on the other hand be the least naturally operatic of his works, Shakespeare gives us a scene (Act 4, sc. 3) in which Desdemona sings to her companion, Emilia, a song she had learned as a child, “a song of willow,” about a bereaved woman whose tears “fell from her and softened the stones.”

The Shakespeare shifts from this domestic willow scene to violent action in the streets of Cyprus. Cassio wounds Roderigo, Iago in turn wounds Cassio. All this has its importance in Shakespeare’s scheme, but Rossini and Berio, with a firm understanding of their own distinctive medium, can do without it.

In their opera the willow scene continues. We, the audience, stay with Desdemona in her bedchamber. Emilia departs, and Desdemona prays to the blessed virgin. Rossini supplies music to the words of “Ave Maria.” With that prayer complete, Otello enters the bedchamber for the violent denouement.

You can listen to, although alas you cannot watch, the entire opera here.


2. I Capuleti e I Montecchi (1830) – Vincenzo Bellini, Felice Romani

Bellini composed this reworking of the tale of Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague for the 1830 Carnival (pre-Lenten) season in Venice. Self-plagiarism is allowed in opera, especially among composers working under time pressure, so we can say without casting aspersions that Bellini re-used much of the music he had prepared for an earlier unsuccessful opera, Zaira.

Romani, the librettist, had worked with Bellini on several other projects (including Zaira). They would collaborate again the following year on the very successful La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker).

As for their take on the tale of the star-crossed lovers, click here: what can one say that has not been said? I think Peggy Lee may have put it best. “Romeo loved Juliet. Juliet felt the same. When he put his arms around her He said Julie baby you’re my flame.”


3. Macbeth (1847) – Giuseppe Verdi, Francesco Maria Piave

Verdi’s Macbeth was notable for the integration of ballet. In the first 1847 version, Verdi included a ballet sequence in which water and air spirits seek to revive Macbeth, dancing to string staccatos and a harp accompaniment. Macbeth needs to be revived because he has just heard the witches predict a long line of descendants for Banquo – news which has him fainting away.

Verdi had had to press for the inclusion of this ballet against opposition, but it paid off. A review in a Milanese paper singled this ballet out for praise, “The third act includes another ballet that has all the zest of modern music….”

The greatest of opera’s 20th century divas, Maria Callas, played Lady Macbeth in 1952.


4. Beatrice et Benedict (1862) – Hector Berlioz

Berlioz is responsible for both the text and the music of this work, a stylization of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Beatrice et Benedict was first performed in Baden-Baden at the Theater der Stadt. It wasn’t performed in France until nearly three decades later has never become part of the standard operatic repertoire. But that should not keep you from looking for it in performance. Should it prove too hard to find live, there are always recordings, including one made by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2000.

This is the first of just three comic operas that have made our list. It is the tragic strain of Shakespeare that has always most enticed composers, so the 7-to-3 imbalance isn’t surprising. In the comic spirit, Berlioz added a new character to the Bard’s cast: a farcical figure he called Somarone, to whom he assigns a memorable drinking song in the second act.

One scholar, James Haar, has written recently that Beatrice and Benedict is “a perfectly rounded work, balancing witty elegance with charmingly half-serious sentiment …” It is symmetrically structured, as well, with a male trio in the first act balanced by a female trio in the second, with only a single aria each for each of the two title characters and so forth.

This was Berlioz’ final opera, and a fitting curtain call.


5. Hamlet (1868) — Ambroise Thomas, librettists Michel Carre and Jules Barbier

This opera has an unusually complicated pre-production history, and (as a consequence) an unusual ending).

Alexandre Dumas père, a friend of Berlioz’ and a monument in French letters himself, greatly admired Shakespeare and wanted to prepare a French edition of the play Hamlet. Unfortunately, Dumas did not excel in the English language, and he hired an assistant, Paul Meurice. The Dumas-Meurice translation/adaptation of Hamlet was performed at the Théâtre Historique in 1847 to great acclaim. It took some liberties with the original. Most important, Hamlet survives the general slaughter of the famous final scene, and is destined to take the throne at last, despite his grievous wounds.

This version of the play became the basis whence Carre and Barbier worked in preparing their

own libretto for Thomas’ music.

They, too, have the bloody but less-than-tragic ending.


6. Otello (1887) – Giuseppe Verdi, Arrigo Boito

Verdi’s operatic Otello has, perhaps unfortunately, surpassed that of the same name by Rossini as the definitive operatic version of Shakespeare’s tale of the Moor. Verdi and Boito faced the same problem as did Rossini and Berio: there’s too much in the original for an opera to accommodate.

Verdi and Rossini also adopted some of the same stratagems to simplify this material. Notably, Verdi too has Desdemona praying the Ave Maria between the willow scene and Otello’s entrance into her bedchamber.

Rossini’s “Ave Maria” had been orchestrated for woodwinds. Verdi, in an example of the anxiety of influence, composed this Ave Maria for strings. In 2002, at Paris’ Thèatre du Chàtelet, Renee Fleming sang Desdemona.


7. Falstaff (1893) — Giuseppe Verdi, Arrigo Boito

Falstaff was a character in Shakespeare’s history plays, the boon companion of the youthful Prince Hal, who in turn was the young man destined to become King Henry V and win the battle of Agincourt. Indeed, Falstaff occupies a very high place in the affections of many of Shakespeare’s admirers and interpreters. Harold Bloom couples Falstaff with Hamlet as the Bard’s two greatest achievements in “the invention of the human.”

It is Bloom, too, who points out that Shakespeare’s battle of Shrewsbury is a good deal livelier and more intriguing than Shakespeare’s battle of Agincourt, precisely because Falstaff is present for the one and missing from the other.

Legend tells us that Queen Elizabeth herself suggested to Shakespeare that he employ “Falstaff in love” as theme for a comedy. From that came his Merry Wives of Windsor, and from that in turn came this opera.

Listen to the famous finale here.


8. Le Marchand de Venise (1935) — Reynaldo Hahn, Miguel Zamacois

This is the first of the twentieth-century items on our list. French composer Hahn and his librettist Zamacois were worthy successors to the illustrious names above. I’ve just described Hahn as a “French” composer advisedly. Though he was born in Venezuela in 1874, he arrived in Paris at the age of three, and stayed there through two world wars, dying there in 1947. Indeed, one reference book calls Hahn “one of the most fragrantly Parisian of composers.”

I’m not sure that isn’t a misprint. Wouldn’t “flagrantly” have been a more natural turn of phrase? Nothing in the context supports the notion that it’s an intentional pun. But, hey, follow the above link and decide that for yourself.

The opera involves the usual compressions: the five acts of the Shakespeare original are turned into three, and some characters are dropped in the process. Here’s 12 minutes of it, courtesy of YouTube.

In 1994, a critic writing in The New York Times lamented that this work is too seldom performed. That critic, Allan Kozinin, wrote admiringly of the “touches of tone painting” such as “the gently bobbing music that underlies the discussion of the gondola that will spirit away Jessica and Lorenzo.”


9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) — Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears

This is the final of our three comedies. Britten composed this work to mark the re-opening of Jubilee Hall, in Aldeburgh, England, after it had been closed for renovations, including the creation of a new orchestra pit.

This opera stays quite close to the plot of Shakespeare’s original. In point of fidelity, anyway, it might be considered the most successful adaptation of Shakespeare to the operatic stage to date. Near the ending we see (as Shakespeare had intended) a play-within-a-play, on the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe, which gives Britten a chance to parody older operatic conventions.


10. Lear (1978) – Aribert Reimann, Claus H. Henneberg.

In some performances, Henneberg’s libretto is sung in the English translation of Desmond Clayton. The link above, though, gives you the singing in the original German, with English subtitles.

An old-fashioned vinyl LP is available from Deutsche Grammaphon, here.

The parts of Kent and Edmund, integral to the play, are severely reduced in this opera. The Fool speaks, but does not sing.

The music sounds modernist in a dissonant way, but in that horrible final scene, where the King dies of grief over Cordelia’s dead body, dissonance is surely what is called for.

So there you have it. With the blessings of JustSheetMusic, you’ve just been treated to a brief history of opera through a Shakespearean lens. What I hope you take from it is that opera is not some dead settled thing, a list of 19th century works performed over and over again in impressive facilities for the purpose. Opera is a continuing force in the artistic world, and the 21st century seems likely to contribute its own candidates for such lists as this.

I’d like to conclude with a runner up: if it had been the general custom to build lists around the number eleven rather than around the number of digits we each carry on our two hands, I would have said a few words about this one:

Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *