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Shakespeare at the Opera

Adapting the story — By Walter Zidarič

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of England’s great dramatic genius. According to Julie Sanders, professor of English Literature at Newcastle University and a Shakespeare specialist, since the 17th Century more than three hundred operas have been written based more or less closely on his works. Doubtless because of the modernity of his poetry and the universality of his themes, such as the nature of love and power which continue today to resonate in our minds and provide matter for debate and artistic inspiration, no less than four works inspired by William Shakespeare – the operas Lear and Beatrice and Benedict and the ballets Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – mark the 2015-16 and the 2016-17 seasons at the Paris Opera.

Using Shakespeare’s plays as models for opera libretti is a dangerous undertaking. Claus H. Henneberg

Four centuries of musical creation

If one counts the number of operas based on his work and calculates the percentage of those that have remained in the repertoire, even including those unjustly forgotten, setting the bard to music has rarely been carried out with success.” Such was the verdict of Reimann, the librettist of the opera Lear, on the bill at the Paris Opera in May of this year. Besides his poetic works, Shakespeare wrote forty or so plays over approximately two decades. A list (inevitably short and incomplete) of important musical works inspired by Shakespeare plays from the middle of the 19th century contains around fifteen titles. In the domain of opera, laying aside symphonic and stage music, Verdi’s Macbeth (1847, followed by the 2nd version of 1865 for Paris) paved the way for numerous composers who quickly followed Verdi’s example, like the German Otto Nicolai who drew inspiration from The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1849, or Ambroise Thomas, whose comic opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1850) is a free adaptation of the English original, or Halévy, whose The Tempest, with an Italian libretto, was performed in London in 1850. Berlioz then wrote his own libretto for Béatrice et Benedict (1862), a comic-opera based on Much Ado About Nothing, whilst Boito and Franco Faccio created their Hamlet in Italy in 1865, the source of which was to inspire the French composer, Ambroise Thomas, three years later. At the same period, Gounod took up Romeo and Juliet (1867), a subject which was to inspire a considerable number of operas and other musical works throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957, Pascal Dusapin’s Romeo et Juliette of 1988 and on into the next century: for example, the musical of the same name by Richard Cocciante (2007).

Macbeth de Giuseppe Verdi dans la mise en scène de Dmitri Tcherniakov
Macbeth de Giuseppe Verdi dans la mise en scène de Dmitri Tcherniakov © Christian Leiber / OnP
The 19th century pursued its operatic exploration of Shakespeare’s universe with Der Widerspenstigen Zämung (1873) by Hermann Goetz, based on The Taming of the Shrew, and two operas by Verdi and Boito: Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), both still in the repertoire. At the very beginning of the 20th century, Charles Villiers Stanford composed Much Ado About Nothing (1901), which was followed by Gustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head, based on the tavern scene from Henry IV Part 1. It was then the turn of The Merchant of Venice to be adapted by both Reynaldo Hahn at the Paris Opera in 1935 and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in Florence in 1961. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Fascist period, Gian Francesco Malipiero undertook, not without risk, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1936). Twenty years later, The Tempest inspired a German opera by Frank Martin, Der Sturm (1955), followed, half a century later, by Thomas Adès’ vision of the same play (2004). In New York, the year 2011 saw the premier of The Enchanted Island, a pasticcio based on The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a libretto by Jeremy Sams. A Midsummer Night’s Dream also inspired Benjamin Britten in 1960 whilst in the United States, Samuel Barber composed Anthony and Cleopatra (1966) to a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli, revised in 1975 with Gian Carlo Menotti. Before returning to Reimann’s Lear, let us look at what happened in the world of dance.  

Dance, stronger than death itself

If the musical Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Cole Porter’s freely adapted version of The Taming of the Shrew, brought the play in line with post-war tastes and revived its popularity, in 1968 the choreographer John Cranko turned to Shakespeare’s play for the Stuttgart Ballet with music by Kurt-Heinz Stolze. In 2014, Jean-Christophe Maillot created a new “Shrew” using film music by Shostakovitch. However, in the field of dance, two works in particular were to have pride of place: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet.

© Julien Benhamou / OnP
The former, with an atmosphere both playful and dreamlike, and in which the device of mise en abime plays an important role throughout, depicts two pairs of besotted young lovers who become estranged only to be reunited at the end. In 1876, in Saint Petersburg, Marius Petipa created his choreography to Mendelssohn’s stage music, composed in 1843 with its celebrated Wedding March. This ballet was revived in 1906 by Michel Fokine for the pupils of the Imperial Theatre in Saint-Petersburg but it was not until 1962 that Fokine created his own version for the New York City Ballet, which entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet the following season. Since then, other choreographers have given us their versions: Frederick Ashton, Heinz Spoerli, John Neumeier, Bruce Wells, David Nixon, Christopher Wheeldon and François Klaus. Balanchine, after waiting patiently before tackling his own Shakespearean ‘Dream’, produced a mature work using a musical patchwork of various pieces by Mendelssohn: apart from the stage music of 1843, he added the Symphony for Strings no. 9, the overtures Athaliah, The Fair Melusine, The Return of the Roamer and The First Walpurgis Night. Considered as a turning point in Balanchine’s output, this is one of the choreographer’s rare narrative ballets and one through which he enriched the vocabulary of dance thanks to a subtle blending of ballet and pantomime. In the 20th century, it is thanks to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet that the tale of the two star-crossed lovers of Verona entered the world of dance. The music composed by Prokofiev in 1935, shortly after his return to the USSR, has inspired a large number of choreographers including Lavrovski, Cranko, MacMillan, Nureyev (1984), Preljocaj, Bertrand d’At, Joëlle Bouvier and Christian Spuck. As for Berlioz’s symphonic poem, it gave rise to works by three choreographers: Maurice Béjart, Sasha Waltz for the Paris Opera in 2007 and Thierry Malandain. Initially commissioned by the Kirov in Leningrad, this ballet underwent a difficult birth: rejected by the censors, it was then destined for the Bolshoi Ballet and eventually premiered in 1938 in Brno in Czechoslovakia where it was very favourably received. It wasn’t performed at the Kirov until 1940 or at the Bolshoi until 1946. Rudolf Nureyev, who performed Kenneth Macmillan’s version with Margot Fonteyn in 1965, brought the work into the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire twenty years later, in 1984, with the conviction that “Renaissance Verona and Elizabethan London had sex and violence in common, which brings them considerably closer to our own time”. Nureyev did not stick rigidly to Prokofiev’s score but gave more substance to the characters of both Romeo and Juliet, with the emphasis on Romeo’s post-adolescent state and a strong sense of impending doom as if death were constantly prowling around the two young lovers.  

Reimann 1 Verdi nil.

King Lear, considered since the 19th century as representing the summit of Shakespeare’s art, is a tragedy in five acts, probably written between 1603 and 1606, though the exact period is not known, and first performed on December 26th 1606 at the Whitehall Palace before King James I. The play was thoroughly reworked after the Restoration, then disappeared from the repertoire and was not performed again in its original form until 1838. In spite of Verdi’s lifelong fascination for Shakespeare, his project to base an opera on King Lear, which occupied him for several years, firstly in collaboration with Salvatore Cammarano and then with Antonio Somma, never came to anything. Another Italian, Antonio Cagnoni, tackled the subject of King Lear in 1895 but this final opera only saw the light of day in 2009, more than a century later! In the first half of the 20th century, only the Italian opera Re Lear by Vito Frazzi, with a libretto by Giovanni Papini (1939), made it onto the operatic stage. Aribert Reimann’s Lear, with a libretto by Claus Henneberg, emerged in the second half of the last century as a major work of the contemporary repertoire. Approached at the end of the sixties by the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who dreamed of portraying the character immortalised by Shakespeare, Reimann agreed to take up the challenge for his third opera. The genesis of this work was a long one as the librettist only began work in 1972 and the composer was still waiting for the official commission from Munich Opera in 1975. Lear was first performed at the Munich National Theatre on 9th July 1978 by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady conducted by Gerd Albrecht in a production by Jean-Pierra Ponnelle and was hailed as a triumph. The French premier took place at the Paris Opera four years later, in a translation by Antoinette Becker.

Lear d'Aribert Reimann dans la mise en scène de Jacques Lassalle
Lear d'Aribert Reimann dans la mise en scène de Jacques Lassalle © OnP DR

In his libretto, Henneberg managed to conserve the essential elements of the story of the mythical king and to overcome the obstacles that had intimidated Verdi over a century earlier: “At first sight, Lear is so vast, so tortuous that it would seem impossible to produce an opera from it. However, after a more attentive examination, it appears that the difficulties, although unquestionably numerous, are not insurmountable. You know that we don’t need to make Lear into a drama of the type one generally sees nowadays. We should treat it in an entirely new way, with a complete disregard for convention” (Letter from Guiseppe Verdi to Salvatore Cammarano, 28th February 1850). Equally attracted by modern and antique theatre, a great admirer of Strindberg and Euripides, of Kafka and Garcia Lorca, Reimann, in his complex score, created an inventive musical language in which the traditional orchestra is treated in a way reminiscent of the Expressionism of the twenties and of Serialism, and in which the use of percussion emphasises the key moments in the story.

Finally, what is the common ground between the amorous sport of the lovers in an imaginary Ancient Greece in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tragedy of two lovers doomed by their feuding families in the Middle Ages in Romeo and Juliet and that of a family torn apart by hatred, incomprehension and lust for power in Lear, plunging into the depths of a Celtic past pre-dating the Roman era by several centuries? These three works portray universes in which love is revealed in three different forms, oscillating between youth and senility, joy and madness, life and death, shadow and light, polarities that inspired both Russian and German artists (although Balanchine became an American citizen) between the rise of Nazism in Europe and the first petrol crisis and, with Lear in 1978, denoting perhaps a growing pessimism, portraying a (modern?) world devoid of all hope.


Walter Zidaric : An expert on Slavic and Italian culture, Walter Zidarič is Professor at the University of Nantes where he directs the department of Italian Studies. He has researched into the relationship between literature, society and music, particularly at the beginning of the 19th century. He has published three monographs, several volumes of contributions to international conferences and over sixty articles in France and abroad. He is the author of the libretto of the opera Lars Cleen: the stranger, based on a short story by Pirandello, with music by Paolo Rosato and first performed in October 2015 at the Metropolia Theatre in Helsinki.

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