“Ah, Shakespeare, Shakespeare!” exclaimed Giuseppe Verdi in 1872. “The good maestro of the human coronary heart.”
Twenty-five years earlier than, as a younger man, Verdi had set “Macbeth,” and his remaining two operas to return, the fruits of his old age, can be “Otello,” in 1887, and “Falstaff,” in 1893, as he turned 80. He contemplated settings of “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Germans typically label Mozart the Shakespeare of music, however no composer cared about this playwright greater than Verdi. And Italian opera corporations, now opening their seasons beneath demanding pandemic circumstances, want to these works for the cathartic secrets and techniques of the center.
There have been glittering opening nights just lately on the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, with an “Otello” starring Jonas Kaufmann, and on the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, with “Macbeth” and Anna Netrebko. In Florence, John Eliot Gardiner performed a brand new manufacturing of “Falstaff,” and the Rome Opera introduced a world-premiere setting of “Julius Caesar,” composed by Giorgio Battistelli. (The development isn’t confined to Italy: A recent adaptation of “Hamlet,” by the Australian composer Brett Dean, will come to the Metropolitan Opera in Could.)
Gardiner is an early-music specialist, and he approaches Verdi with the Renaissance of Shakespeare and Monteverdi in thoughts, emphasizing lightness, readability and agility. In an interview he mentioned that Monteverdi created the mannequin for through-composed operas (like “Falstaff”) that blur the excellence between aria and declamation, utilizing the music to underline the textual content, and exploring — like Shakespeare, Monteverdi’s up to date — the complete dimensions of the human situation.
Falstaff’s declamations have been magnificently delivered by the baritone Nicola Alaimo: Within the first act the clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets joined with him in saluting his splendid stomach. Gardiner presided over the fragile nocturnal tones of the ultimate scene, which started with a touch of early music: a musician alone onstage enjoying a valveless horn.
The theatrical genius of Shakespeare usually nests a play inside the play, and Verdi captures this brilliantly in “Otello” and “Falstaff,” each with librettos by Arrigo Boito. In “Falstaff” the tricking and trapping of the libertine knight is masterminded by Alice Ford, one of many merry wives of Windsor — sung in Florence with pretty vivacity by the soprano Ailyn Pérez.
The Greatest Music of 2021
From Lil Nas X to Mozart to Esperanza Spalding here’s what we cherished listening to this 12 months.
In “Otello” the nested play is “staged” by Iago — instilling and amplifying jealousy — and on an evening when many had come to listen to Kaufmann because the tormented hero, the younger Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko was hypnotically compelling because the villain. (Victor Maurel created each Iago and Falstaff, and Verdi required him to declaim, musically, in Shakespearean trend — in Iago’s nihilist “Credo,” as in Falstaff’s mockery of honor.)
In Naples, the conductor Michele Mariotti appeared to sing — or at the least mouth — each phrase alongside along with his singers, presiding over a delicate efficiency of many moods and colorings. Since 2017 Kaufmann has been singing Otello, Verdi’s most difficult dramatic tenor function, and it fits him superbly: the heroic moments that draw on his Wagnerian forcefulness, and the anguished lyricism and modulated dynamics which have all the time been options of his artistry.
He carried out with silvery grey hair, a visibly growing older titan. Desdemona was the soprano Maria Agresta, able to beautiful grace but in addition dramatic urgency. Mario Martone’s manufacturing, set in a up to date army encampment, put Desdemona in soldier’s fatigues, and even had her pulling a gun on Otello in an inevitably unsuccessful try to defend her life.
Verdi’s Shakespeare is so essential to Italian operatic tradition that it was daring certainly for the Rome Opera to open with Battistelli’s “Julius Caesar.” Robert Carsen’s manufacturing introduced Roman statesmen in fashionable fits, and the traditional Senate was represented by an auditorium resembling the Italian Parliament. The English-language libretto (by Ian Burton) used Shakespeare’s phrases, and Battistelli mentioned in an interview that he listened fastidiously to the syllabification of the English verse earlier than composing the music.
Influenced by atonal composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, Battistelli even makes use of Schoenbergian Sprechgesang — suspended between singing and speech — for the supply of a few of the textual content. The good speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral have been addressed to the refrain, which responded with unstable moods: aroused, becalmed, confused, manipulated. Battistelli mentioned he sees his opera as related for understanding populist and authoritarian presences in politics at the moment; in Rome, the viewers appears to be like up at an inscription over the proscenium acknowledging Benito Mussolini’s assist in restoring the opera home in 1928.
Battistelli makes use of an prolonged percussion part — situated in one of many aspect packing containers above the orchestra — to ascertain an unsettling temper: the tam-tam and snare drum, bells and glockenspiel, bongos and marimba, cymbals and gongs. The rating, performed with nice dedication by Daniele Gatti, creates a way of uncanniness and suspense that additionally evokes cinematic music. Diverging from Shakespeare, the opera presents a big musical function to the ghost of Caesar, who, returning to the stage within the concluding act — just like the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni” — actively participates within the suicides of his assassins.
“I need Girl Macbeth ugly and unhealthy,” Verdi as soon as mentioned, including that even her voice must be not altogether lovely, however “harsh, stifled and darkish.” At La Scala, nevertheless, Netrebko provided an undeniably glamorous sound and presence, her decrease and center registers extra attractive than ever, and her high notes rising with thrilling magnificence. The baritone Luca Salsi was extraordinary within the difficult title function, with its whispered introspection and agonized exclamations, whereas the conductor, Riccardo Chailly, conjured the darkish orchestral moods of Verdi’s first Shakespearean masterpiece.
Salsi’s Macbeth suffers spiritually, nearly from the beginning, singing on his knees within the nice duet that follows the homicide of Duncan, whereas Netrebko was at her most haunting within the sinister waltz rhythm of “La luce langue,” dismissing the lifeless in a nihilistic spirit as darkish as Iago’s.
In Davide Livermore’s manufacturing, the Macbeths stay in a rotating penthouse that appears out on a skyscraper metropolis projected as if in an city fantasy online game. The opera begins with Macbeth and Banquo performing a gangster execution in the course of the prelude; they then encounter the witches in an underground parking storage earlier than ascending (whereas singing their duet) within the constructing elevator. Netrebko quickly steps into the identical elevator throughout her mesmerizing summoning of darkish spirits.
The solid was acclaimed by the viewers. However the greatest ovation of the evening got here earlier than the opera started, when the nation’s president, Sergio Mattarella, entered his field. The viewers cheered for a full six minutes, with cries of “bis” — which often means “encore” on the opera, however was right here a name on the president to contemplate a second time period.
Mattarella has been a well-loved chief by the pandemic, which reached Italy earlier than the remainder of Europe in February 2020, and struck Milan arduous. There was no opening evening for La Scala final 12 months, so this 12 months’s was a gesture of religion sooner or later.
When the final act started with the hushed refrain “Patria oppressa” — a grim response to Macbeth’s oppressive rule — it was arduous not to think about the tragedies of the previous two years. With the opening of latest opera seasons, the fastidiously masked and vaccinated Italian public has taken a tentative step towards regular life. On the finish of “Falstaff,” Alice Ford tells her co-conspirators that when the farce within the woods is completed, “ci smaschereremo” — “we are going to unmask” — to return collectively in a spirit of ultimate celebration.
They do — and we are going to, too. However not fairly but.
Larry Wolff is a professor of European historical past at New York College and the writer of “The Singing Turk: Ottoman Energy and Operatic Feelings on the European Stage.”