Witches, Devils, Madonnas, and Fairies: Tradition and Innovation in Verdi’s Adaptations of Shakespeare



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William Shakespeare is one of the most adapted playwrights of all time; film, stage, and musical adaptations abound since the late seventeenth century. In the world of music, art songs, ballets, operas, musicals, symphonies, vaudeville, and more have been inspired by the works of Shakespeare; in addition to composers creating incidental music for the plays themselves. Of the Shakespeare-inspired operas, perhaps the most famous are those of Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893). In this thesis, I explore the overall effect of each of Verdi’s Shakespeare operas through the way in which he and his librettists develop major characters and emphasize thematic elements. I discuss the production history of each of the plays these operas were based on, making connections between standard performance practice and the way that the characters are depicted in Verdi’s operas. In addition, I address not only operatic tradition and how these conventions shaped Verdi’s adaptations, but also how Verdi’s operas pushed back against these conventions, creating a new style of opera. Music’s role in conveying a story has shifted throughout opera’s history. From opera’s first emergence, music was generally the most important aspect of performance—often treated as more important than story. Although structures shifted over the next century, the emphasis on music remained. Prima donna and virtuoso culture allowed the singers more prerogative in changing a composer’s score, often to include more embellishments or impressive notes. Verdi had to contend with the power of individual singers and impresarios throughout the beginning of his career, but was soon able to gain enough power himself to put the story first. Although Verdi’s operas are often considered among the most faithful to Shakespeare’s original works, he had to reconcile operatic convention with the innovations that Shakespeare's plots require. Because he did not speak English, Verdi was also relying on translations of these plays rather than the originals themselves; the difference in languages combined with artistic liberties on the part of the translator may alter a reader’s understanding of these translations. As a result, the Verdian versions of Shakespeare’s characters differ from their original counterparts. I will be looking closely at a number of these characters—Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the Witches; Desdemona and Iago; and Falstaff and the Merry Wives—in an attempt to analyze what elements of the characters were altered in translation while also acknowledging the dimensions gained. A key element that has emerged throughout my discussion of the three operas is the way in which the female characters in Verdi’s operas are given power they do not have in the plays through their supernatural connections.



Shakespeare, Opera, Adaptation, Verdi