Category Archives: external thoughts

Shakespeare at the Opera

(The following is a cross-post from Shakespeare In Action’s blog. Click link for some wonderful insights in the wonderful world of the Bard)

Shakespeare’s works on their own can be daunting for many, as can the opera. Combine the two and you may see people running for the hills (woe to those in the Prairies!) But Shakespeare and opera are a wonderful match, and there have been a few composers who took the bard’s masterful storytelling and set it to music as strong as the characters themselves.

I think the greatest success story is Verdi’s opera Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello. The silence that consumes the theatre as Othello smothers his wife is harrowing, but when set to powerful music, it evokes the sublime passion in the audience that words alone cannot. Here is the finale from Domingo’s 1992 performance. You do not have to speak Italian to feel the horror that Shakespeare evoked at the end of this tragedy.

Finale from Otello

Othello lends itself quite well to the opera form. Librettist Arrigo Boito notes that he did not have to force Shakespeare’s work into a foreign style, but that Shakespeare wrote in the convention of Italian operas. Othello, perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, fits the bill for traditional Italian opera: it is unified, it is melodramatic, and it demonstrates the fall of a great man. Iago, a larger than life villain, is right at home in Verdi’s world, as Dmitri Hvorostovsky demonstrates here. Or, as Placido Domingo illustrates, opera can show how truly far Othello must fall to meet his tragic end.

Let us move now to a lighter note. From the strong tragedian, Verdi, to the lyrical composer, Hector Berlioz. Most noted for his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz ventured into the operatic world and took Shakespeare with him. Beatrice et Benedict, which Berlioz wrote both the music and libretto for, is largely based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Of course Berlioz realized what Shakespeare may or may not have known when writing the play at the end of the 16th century; that the the heart of the play is the wit and relationship of Beatrice and Benedick, and so Berlioz afforded these two the centre stage of the opera.

The comic opera had great initial successes. Audiences in France and Germany were won over by the beautiful duets, and Beatrice’s Aria. Certain Parisian critics decided that the spoken words were “lacking in wit”, and yet the the dialogue that Berlioz inserted almost verbatim into the opera was Shakespeare’s text. Perhaps the wit of Beatrice and Benedick does not translate well into French? Or maybe these critics were harboring a grudge for Shakespeare’s treatment of the French in such plays as Henry V.

One of the crowning achievements of the opera is actually a scene that does not appear in Shakespeare’s text. About to be married, and knowing nothing of the impending tragedy that Don John and Borrachio have put in place, Hero and Ursula sit under the moonlight and sing a sensational nocturne of love:

In his memoirs, Hector Berlioz records a conversation he had with the Grand Duke of Wiemar about this piece:

DUKE: You must have written this, he said, by moonlight in some romantic place…

BERLIOZ: Sire, this is one of those of impressions of nature that artists store in their memory and which emerge from their creative mind without warning and in the most unpredictable circumstances. I sketched the music of this duet one day at the Institut, while one of my colleagues was delivering a speech.

DUKE: Good for the speaker! the Grand Duke replied. He must have been a man of exceptional eloquence!”

So we see two contrasting operas, in libretto and score, drawn from Shakespeare. His musical influence is far greater than this brief aperitif, but I wanted to share my two favourites here. As well as composing Otello, Verdi composed Falstaffe. Unfortunately Verdi is not as strong a comic composer as he is a tragic one, and the libretto comes largely from the anti-Falstaffian Merry Wives of Windsor, so this opera does not match up to Otello despite Falstaff’s natural presence in the opera world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has also inspired a few operas. It is not hard to imagine the musically faerie world of the forest of Athens, sometimes made haunting by modernists like Benjamin Britten.

And so I close my curtain, hopefully leaving a lingering appreciation for the grand scope of Shakespeare’s works, the power of opera, or both.

Valeo amici!

Alex Benarzi

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The Ides of March are come!

Today is the 15th day of March. We often let this day pass by and dismiss it as a day like any other. But it is not.

The word ides is said to be derived from the Latin iduare, meaning “to divide.” In the Ancient Roman calendar, Ides referred to the 15th day of March, May, July, and October, and the 13th day of all other months.

In Rome, the Ides of March (March 15th) was marked with a festival to the god Mars, the god of war. A militaristic parade was customary. However, since 44BC this day has taken on a new form: it was the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated. This infamous incident came alive when Shakespeare first staged this play at the end of the 16th century.

Soothsayer

Caesar! 

CAESAR

Ha! who calls?

CASCA

Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer

Beware the ides of March. (Julius Caesar I.ii)

But Caesar does not heed the call, but rather says “he is a dreamer, let us leave him.” Little did the great Caesar known Cassius was organizing a group of conspirators that would bring him down.

And the so the Ides of March came and 23 senators met Caesar at the senate house to plead a case: Caesar would so be swayed. So:

CASCA

Speak, hands for me!

CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR

CAESAR

Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar.

Dies. (III.i)

The line “Et tu Brute!” has become one of the most popular lines inherited from the Bard. It has been used in many cultural references to describe the dismay at a traitorous friend.

Brutus justified the assignation before the people, saying that Caesar was ambitious, and it was

Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. (III.ii)

There are those who say that Shakespeare is not relevant today: but one need only to looks at the events over the past year in light of this play to see that the struggle that Brutus expresses in these lines has not died, but is as relevant today as they were on that Ides of March when Caesar fell.

Perhaps it would be wise to give this day more notice than it receives. Perhaps we should commemorate this occasion as Brutus instructed the Romans to do:

Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty! (III.i)

Or….maybe just take time to read your favourite passage from Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy! For who cannot be moved by such immortal speeches as:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me. (III.ii)

Valeo amici!

Alex

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What happens when As You Like It marries Hamlet?

 

Find out this weekend!

 

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The Drowned Book

O! For a Muse of Water! Or a glass – I’ll take a glass.

Some time ago, never mind how long exactly, I decided that I wanted to read or re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I started to do so. Then I realized, why just read them when I could also deconstruct them?

There are so many books on Shakespeare, and I’ve been reading a lot of them. But the more I read the texts themselves the more I find my opinions differing from certain critics. That is why I figured I would codify my own views on the Bard’s texts. Which brings us to this blog.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be sharing my views of the plays; approaching them from both a literary and theatrical perspective. A bit of deconstruction, a bit of reflection – whatever strikes me as important. It won’t be objective, because that’s boring. And while I may reference certain critics, it will not just be a rehashing of their works (so Harold Bloom, if for whatever reason you are reading this, I am not stealing your work!)

I think this is a way to codify my thoughts and to maybe bring to a group of readers some manageable knowledge about the plays. I am not writing these for only those familiar with Shakespeare or his works. Of course, if you have read the work you will have a deeper understanding of what I write and be able to disagree with me, but I will provide all knowledge needed.

These blogs will not be pedantic, but they will be on the academic side – and hopefully enjoyable. So I hope you will take the time and peruse what is here, or what will be here.

I was originally going to go in some form of chronological order, or by genre as most critics do. Marjorie Garber, in her excellent work Shakespeare After All, points to the fact that we should consider Shakespeare’s works in chronological order because one builds upon the others and we see how he develops tropes throughout his writing career. There is certainly a truth to this.

But I don’t really want to do that. So I’m going to go in a random order, whatever I feel like. That way we get a nice blend of comedy, tragedy, history, early, late &c.

I will be starting with The Comedy of Errors: which is coming off the presses soon and should be posted shortly. Stay tuned.

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