One asks "Is it as good as the book?" whenever a popular piece of fiction becomes a movie. As relevant as that question is to films, it was just as pertinent more than a century ago to operas, the movies' predecessor as the spectacular entertainment of the middle class.
The question is rarely answered in the affirmative, particularly when the author of the book happens to be the greatest writer who ever lived. Thus it is something of a miracle that Giuseppe Verdi surpassed William Shakespeare when he wrote his final opera, "Falstaff," which opens tomorrow and runs through next week at the Lyric Opera House in a production by the Baltimore Opera Company.
Verdi -- who completed "Falstaff" in his 80th year in 1893 -- was no stranger to Shakespeare: The English playwright was his favorite writer, and he kept one of his two copies of the complete poems and plays by his bedside and never traveled without the other. Verdi's first unquestioned masterpiece was "Macbeth" (1847), and he returned triumphantly to Shakespeare 40 years later in "Otello."
But what distinguishes "Falstaff," which is based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor," from his previous excursions into Shakespearean territory is that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito (with whom the composer had collaborated on "Otello"), took one of the English dramatist's least characteristic plays and transformed it into a masterpiece that is, paradoxically, more truly Shakespearean than its Shakespearean source.
On the surface, there was nothing unusual about Verdi's interest in Shakespeare. To composers of opera in the 19th century, his plays had the combined appeal of the novels of John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton to today's filmmakers. Of his 36 plays, only six -- "Titus Andronicus," "Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the history plays "King John," "Henry VI," "Richard II" and "Henry V" -- have failed to attract an opera composer. No one knows exactly how many hundreds of times his plays have been converted into operas, but "The Tempest" alone has suffered through more than 30 such attempts.
Tried and abandoned
The difficulty of translating Shakespeare into opera -- only Verdi's three and, perhaps, Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" can be accounted successes -- has not deterred others from trying. Among the abandoned projects are Beethoven's "Macbeth," Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and the aborted "King Lear" projects of Verdi, Puccini and Debussy. Mendelssohn worked on "The Tempest" with three different librettists, one German, one French and one Italian. Sometimes bad luck had a hand: Mozart died immediately after accepting a libretto on "The Tempest," and Smetana went mad while composing "Twelfth Night."
There had been Shakespeare operas before the 19th century -- an adaptation of "The Tempest" in 1695 by Henry Purcell and one of "Timon of Athens" by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in 1696. But it was only in the 19th century that opera had developed sufficiently to cope with drama of Shakespearean sophistication and complexity.
Until that time, serious opera was an entertainment designed for aristocrats, whose principal interest was in the singers and (if there were any) ballet dancers. It consisted entirely of recitative and solo arias. Composers of comic opera in Italy had begun to develop the ensemble, but it was not until Mozart adapted these methods to a higher artistic purpose and the French Revolution altered its social basis that opera became capable of dealing with complex human subjects.
And it's easy to see why 19th-century composers were attracted to Shakespeare. With their explosive events, their bigger-than-life characters, their arialike soliloquies and their fantastical plots, Shakespeare's plays contain many of the qualities we call operatic.
When George Bernard Shaw wrote that "the truth is that instead of 'Otello' being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, 'Othello' is a play written in the style of Italian opera," he could just as well have been speaking of several other Shakespeare plays.
But as Ferrucio Busoni -- who had problems of his own transforming Christopher Marlowe's play "Dr. Faustus" into the opera "Doktor Faustus" -- once remarked: "What I desire from an opera text is not only that it conjures up music, but that it allows room for it [music] to expand."
There isn't much room for such expansion in Shakespeare's plays. For one thing, they are so musical in their use of language that they do not need music. Then there are the problems of the overabundance of themes and the complexities of fully developed multiple plots, such as those in "King Lear," Verdi's favorite play, which frustrated for 50 years the composer's efforts to turn it into an opera.
The latter may explain why Verdi was attracted early in his career to "Macbeth," at 2,500 lines, Shakespeare's shortest, simplest and most compact tragedy, and to "Otello," whose entire first act can be jettisoned and which has only one important plot.
But there's another factor for the failure of operas based on Shakespeare: the fear of risking comparison with the original.
Some missing elements
After attending Vincenzo Bellini's "Capuleti e i Montecchi" ("Capulets and Montagues") in Florence in 1830, Berlioz reported: "Bitter disappointment! The opera contained no ball at the Capulets, no Mercutio, no garrulous nurse, no grave and tranquil hermit, no balcony scene, no sublime soliloquy for Juliet, no duet in the cell between the banished Romeo and the disconsolate friar, no Shakespeare, no nothing."
Almost 40 years later, Verdi read the libretto for Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" and wrote, "It is impossible to have done worse. Poor Shakespeare!"
But it is impossible to imagine such outraged reactions to an opera based upon "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Put simply, it's one of the worst things Shakespeare ever wrote.
Tradition has it that Shakespeare dashed off "The Merry Wives" in 14 days because the queen had asked for a play about Falstaff in love. The story is probably apocryphal, but scholarly evidence suggests the poet put the "Merry Wives" together at great speed for a performance at court. The play, which is pedestrian in plotting and language, suggests Shakespeare's heart was not in it.
The character of Falstaff -- who is merely a fat buffoon in "Merry Wives" -- is certainly not the gargantuan, vital figure of the "Henry IV" plays. And the play, far from expressing any of the magic found in the finales of Shakespeare's other comedies, concludes with a prosaic and simple-minded triumph of bourgeois morality celebrated in a verse that veers dangerously close to doggerel.
But Verdi had the great fortune to collaborate with Boito, himself a fine composer and a writer of genius who loved Shakespeare as deeply as the composer did. The two had worked together for the first time in 1879, when Boito helped Verdi revise "Simon Boccanegra." Verdi had retired as an opera composer after "Aida" (1871), but the experience of working with Boito persuaded him to emerge from retirement to tackle the enormous task of "Otello."
Completed in 1887, "Otello" would have remained Verdi's final opera were it not for Boito's desire, as he put it, to "make that bronze colossus resound one more time." When Verdi expressed interest in Boito's proposal to collaborate on a comic opera based on "The Merry Wives of Windsor," with Falstaff as the central figure, the poet sent him a scenario within 48 hours.
A Falstaff fan
Falstaff had long been one of Verdi's favorite Shakespearean characters. He and Boito recognized from the start that though the plot of the opera must be that of the "Merry Wives," the characterization must be based on "Henry IV" if Falstaff himself was to be realized in all the range, depth and amplitude of his glory.
Boito also gave Verdi the room needed to expand the meaning of the character musically. His text provides the occasion for one of Verdi's greatest tour de forces: the trill at the beginning of Act III that represents the way drinking wine revives Falstaff's spirits after his unceremonious dousing in the Thames. The trill starts in the second flute, while the first and third give out cricket-like twitters; it spreads, instrument by instrument, through the strings; it then moves through the winds and, finally, to the full orchestra in a wide arc that resounds with bliss.
If "The Merry Wives" shows us a Shakespeare who was unengaged in his task, his play, as transformed by Boito, gave Verdi an opportunity in which he could sum up his entire operatic career. The play that "Falstaff" really resembles is "The Tempest," Shakespeare's farewell to the theater.
For despite its fast-moving comedy, subtle glints of color and jesting high spirits, "Falstaff" is an opera that could only have been written in old age. Even more than in "Otello," Verdi was writing to satisfy himself, rather than an audience. Perhaps that is why "Falstaff" has never been as beloved as "Otello" -- or "La Traviata," "Rigoletto" or "Il Trovatore."
Critics of the day were charmed by the translucence of the writing, the wit of the music and the technical mastery evident in every measure. But they were puzzled by the absence -- in a work by the greatest master of melody in operatic history -- of a single tune in an aria or an ensemble upon which a listener could seize.
"Falstaff" has fantastic arias and ensembles, but they move at such lightning speed they cannot be savored in the traditional way. One of Falstaff's important arias -- "Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk" ("When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk") -- lasts a mere 30 seconds. It is a gem that disappears just as it glints. Like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in some of their late works, Verdi was writing for the connoisseur.
A running commentary
And as his hero, Shakespeare, did in "The Tempest," Verdi filled "Falstaff" with a running commentary on the art of the theater. One of the raisons d'etre of opera, for example, is giving lovers an opportunity to sing an extended love duet. But time after time -- just as they are about to kiss or launch into song -- the two young people are interrupted by their elders. Their two most sustained duets are only 90 seconds.
Shakespearean comedies typically end in a reconciliation. Verdi realized the most inclusive musical summing up of disparate elements possible would be a fugue, in which the theme is stated successively in all voices, continuously expanded, opposed and finally re-established.
And he responded with one of the most sophisticated fugues since the heyday of that master of counterpoint, J.S. Bach. It's an extraordinary end to a marvelous and emotionally moving comic opera, made all the more affecting by the undertone of sadness that comes from Verdi's knowledge that this would be his final opera.
In his letters to Boito and other friends, Verdi was to express repeatedly how much more than on any other opera he had enjoyed working on "Falstaff." And he took obvious pleasure in the success it enjoyed in its travels through Europe and North America and South America.
But while he lived for another eight years and wrote some important music, including his "Te Deum" and the "Quattro Pezzi Sacri," he could never be induced -- not even by Boito's offer of a libretto for "King Lear" -- to write another opera.
Verdi understood too well -- probably better than Boito, who wrote them -- the words in the final couplet in "Falstaff's" great fugal chorus ("Ma ridi ben chi ride/la risata final"):
" the best laugh of all is the one that comes last."
What: Baltimore Opera Company
When: Tomorrow at 7: 30; Saturday at 8: 15 p.m., Sunday at C p.m., Oct. 22 at 7: 30 p.m.; Oct. 24 at 8: 15 p.m.; Oct. 26 at 3 p.m.
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Productions to come: Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" (Nov. 13, 15, 16, 19, 21, 23), Bizet's "Carmen" (March 19, 21, 22, 25, 27, 29) and Wagner's "The Flying Dutch-man" (April 30, May 2, 3, 6, 8, 10)
Pub Date: 10/15/97