Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater

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Overview

A dazzling study of the operas Verdi adapted from Shakespeare- and a spellbinding account of their creation.

In Verdi's Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize winner and lifelong opera devotee Garry Wills explores the writing and staging of Verdi's three triumphant Shakespearian operas: Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff. An Italian composer who couldn't read a word of English but adored Shakespeare, Verdi devoted himself to operatic productions that authentically incorporated the playwright's...

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Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater

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Overview

A dazzling study of the operas Verdi adapted from Shakespeare- and a spellbinding account of their creation.

In Verdi's Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize winner and lifelong opera devotee Garry Wills explores the writing and staging of Verdi's three triumphant Shakespearian operas: Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff. An Italian composer who couldn't read a word of English but adored Shakespeare, Verdi devoted himself to operatic productions that authentically incorporated the playwright's texts. Wills delves into the fast-paced worlds of these men of the theater, focusing on the intense working relationships both Shakespeare and Verdi had with the performers and producers of their works. We see Verdi study the Shakespearean dramaturgy as he obsessively corresponds with his chosen librettists, handpicks the singers he feels are best- suited to the roles, and coaches them intensely.

With fascinating portraits of these artistic giants and their entourages, sharp insights into music and theater, and telling historical details, Verdi's Shakespeare re-creates the conditions that allowed Verdi to complete his masterworks and illuminates the very nature of artistic creation.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Opera aficionados will delight in Wills's (Outside Looking In) thoughtful, deeply rehearsed essays on Verdi's treatment of Shakespeare's plays. Both the Elizabethan playwright and the 19th-century composer were steeped in the language and logistics of the theater, and both tailored their work for the performers at hand. Shakespeare created his characters in Macbeth, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor especially for leading actor Richard Burbage, who doubled for parts in the same play, as all the players did, with boy actors assuming the women's roles; Verdi partly chose to do Macbeth because it required a strong baritone, which the Florence Teatro della Pergola had, rather than a leading tenor, which the theater did not. Wills looks closely at how each director handled scenes of witchcraft—more challenging for the skeptical 19th-century audience—and Verdi's neat, dramatic compression of events in the plays. Verdi employed for the operas Otello and Falstaff his masterly, much younger librettist, Arrigo Boito, whose boldness and vibrant ideas "reinvigorated the Maestro's creative force." Their collaboration towered over Rossini's gold-standard Otello, notes Wills, especially in beginning the opera with an apocalyptic storm and creating for Otello and Desdemona a love duet, and in later fashioning an inventive composite Falstaff as a "a force of nature." Wills's detailed depictions of the operas' subtleties, sublimely rendered for opera fans—perhaps tedious for other readers—endlessly elucidate the work of these "creative volcanoes." (Oct.)
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg; What the Gospels Meant) here turns his attention to the three operas by Giuseppe Verdi based on plays by Shakespeare—Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff. At once scholarly and conversational in tone, the book ping-pongs between the worlds of 17th-century Elizabethan drama and 19th-century Italian opera. Wills brilliantly explores the evolution, development, and performance histories of the three plays (actually, four, counting both Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor as inspirations for Falstaff), the three operas, and the connections among them. Verdi was a great lover of Shakespeare, and though he could not read a word of English, he understood the complexity and emotive force of the plays and strove to create compelling works that would do justice to their sources. This meant micromanaging the work of his librettists, collaborators, and singers. In doing so, he redefined the genre with each work. VERDICT Compared to Gary Schmidgall's excellent Shakespeare and Opera, Wills's survey is necessarily less broad but equally interdisciplinary and thought-provoking. An essential purchase. [See Prepub Alert, 4/18/11.]—Larry Lipkis, Music Dept., Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA
John Simon
There is a fair, but not daunting, amount of musical analysis, as well as much acknowledged borrowing and quoting from other relevant writers. This only makes the book more useful, what with burrowings (rather than borrowings) a worm would be proud of, and a panorama worthy of a fly's multifaceted eye. We get, it seems, everything known about the circumstances of the plays' and operas' productions…Where information is lacking, Wills provides shrewd and judicious guesses.
—The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670023042
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/13/2011
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

Garry Wills has been called one of our country's leading public intellectuals. His books What Jesus Meant, Papal Sin, and Why I Am a Catholic were all New York Times bestsellers. An acclaimed journalist, he has also written several works on American history that have received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Biography

Born in Atlanta in 1934 and raised in the Midwest, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and distinguished religion writer Garry Wills entered the Jesuit seminary after high school graduation, but left after six years of training. He received a B.A. from St. Louis University (1957), an M.A. from Xavier University of Cincinnati (1958), and his Ph.D. in classics from Yale (1961).

After graduating from Xavier, Wills was hired to work as the drama critic for National Review magazine, where he became a close personal friend and protégé of founding editor William F. Buckley. But as the winds of change blew across the 1960s, Wills got caught up in the cross-currents. A staunch Catholic anti-Communist in his youth, he began to drift away from political conservatism, galvanized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam debate. He parted ways with National Review and began writing for more liberal-leaning publications like Esquire and the New York Review of Books, a defection that left him slightly estranged from Buckley for many years. (They reconciled before Buckley's death in 2008.)

In 1961, while he was still in grad school, Wills's first book, Chesterton: Man and Mask was published. [It was revised and reissued in 2001 with a new author's introduction.] Since then, the prolific Wills has gone on to pen critically acclaimed nonfiction that roams across history, politics, and religion. He expanded one of his Esquire articles into Nixon Agonistes (1970), a probing profile John Leonard said "...reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus." (The book landed Wills on the famous Nixon's Enemies List.) He has also written penetrating studies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Wayne, and Saint Paul; he has won two National Book Critics Circle Awards; and his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Something of a rara avis, Wills is a Catholic intellectual who has produced thoughtful, scholarly books on religion in America. His translations of St. Augustine have received glowing reviews, and he has acted both as an outspoken critic of the Church (Papal Sin) and as an ardent advocate for his own faith Why I Am a Catholic). Proof of his accessibility can be found in the fact that several of his religion books have become bestsellers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 22, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, GA
    1. Education:
      St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 29, 2011

    A must for Verdi Lovers

    An intriguing book. A little dry in some spots, but it is loaded with fascinating tidbits about Verdi. Any opera lover (especially Verdi operas) will find it very interesting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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