Tuesday 25 October 2016

Shakespeare - the inspiration behind composers' operas

George Hamilton

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

The play's the thing: Verdi wrote three operas based on the Bard's works.
The play's the thing: Verdi wrote three operas based on the Bard's works.

It's music that concerns us here, but we couldn't let this day pass without doffing a cap in the direction of the literary figure so great he's most often referred to simply as "The Bard". This is William Shakespeare's anniversary, believed also to have been his birthday, so it seems entirely appropriate that, 400 years on, we should feature some music he inspired.

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For a playwright as prolific, the connection with opera would seem obvious, and you don't have to look too far. Verdi was a huge fan. Though his big ambition was to create an opera based on King Lear, he never managed it, but he did produce three based on Shakespeare plays.

Macbeth was written in his 30s, conceived during a period of enforced rest which followed a life-threatening illness. It broke new ground in many ways, not least the absence of any romance.

Instead, the composer - who would create some of the most powerful love scenes on the musical stage (think of the duet in the final scene of Aïda where the heroine and her Egyptian soldier lover await their end) - focuses on the dysfunctionality of the marriage of the couple at the centre of the story.

Otello and Falstaff came much later, when Verdi was already in his 70s, and seemed settled in retirement - it had been over 15 years since he'd last staged an original work. They would be the last two operas he would write, but what triumphs they are, twin peaks of theatrical achievement.

Otello came first, an early highlight being Othello and Desdemona's duet in the opening act - Già nella notte densa - showing he hadn't lost his touch when it came to love and romance.

It was entirely appropriate that Verdi should sign off with Falstaff, his favourite Shakespearean character. He's there in all his comic glory in a cleverly condensed version of the two parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It's hardly a surprise that the classic amorous adventure - Romeo and Juliet - made its mark on musical imaginations as well. Charles Gounod was just one composer who turned it into an opera. Bellini called his version I Capuleti e I Montecchi.

Then there's the ballet by Prokofiev, a dramatic symphony by Berlioz, and the Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky which has given us one of the most sumptuous love themes of them all (brilliantly realised on a Deutsche Grammophon 2-CD set - 0289 479 0540 0 2 - by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, entitled Karajan Adagio - Music to Free Your Mind, worth buying for the Tchaikovsky alone). Of course, the tale is also told in modern dress in Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.

From a personal point of view, I couldn't leave out of this far from exhaustive list the music Felix Mendelssohn composed for a royal command performance of the wonderful romantic comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream (in which I once played Bottom the Weaver!) by the new King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, in 1843.

It's the perfect accompaniment to the play, full of the positivity that Mendelssohn is capable of achieving, like the joyful Scherzo. There's the blissfully romantic Nocturne as well, and it even comes complete with an instantly recognisable favourite - the Wedding March (not 'Here Comes The Bride' - that's Wagner. It's the other one!).

There's a marvellous version of this, on Deutsche Grammophon as well (439 897-2), with a narration by Judi Dench to go with the music of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10.00 am.

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