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Shakespeare at the Opera, 1 & 8 July 2023

Programme notes

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Librettist: Arrigo Boito

After Aida proved to be an almighty success for Verdi in 1871 he took that as a cue to quit while he was ahead and chose to retire from writing theatrical works. A few years later, having completed his Requiem, he retired from composition entirely. Or, at least, tried to. His publishers, Ricordi, were convinced there was more genius (and therefore money) to be drawn from their star composer and essentially launched a campaign to persuade him to take on another project. Eventually, after several failed attempts to pique his interest with various ideas like writing an opera for one of his favoured sopranos, Adelina Patti, they half drew him out by getting him to agree to revise his 1857 opera, Simon Boccanegra in collaboration with Arrigo Boito whose work they had come across a few years earlier. With this half-step achieved they eventually persuaded Verdi to collaborate with Boito on a new opera based on Othello. Thank goodness they did.


Ricordi, along with Boito, chose Othello because of its relatively simple plot, so the opera follows the original plot fairly faithfully, minus Shakespeare’s first act. The storm at the beginning of Act 2 of the play serves as a more dramatic introduction of the characters.

Act 1: Una Vela See printed programme for libretto and translation.
Shakespeare’s equivalent text
Othello Act 2, Scene 1, lines 1-9, 57-60:

Montano                 What from the cape can you discern at sea?
First Gentleman     Nothing at all. It is a high-wrought flood.
                                 I cannot ‘twixt the heaven and the main
                                 Descry a sail.
Montano                  Methinks the wind hath spoke aloud at land.
                                 A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements.
                                 If it hath ruffianed so upon the sea,
                                 What ribs of oak, when mountains melt on the,
                                 Can hold the mortise? What shall we hear of this?
(off-stage voices)    A sail, a sail, a sail!
Cassio                       What noise?
Messenger               The town is empty; on the brow o’ th’ sea
                                 Stands ranks of people, and they cry ‘A sail!’
Cassio                       My hopes do shape him for the Governor.

Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896)
Librettists: Michel Carré and Jules Barbier

Michel Carré and Jules Barbier were already well-practised at adapting literary works for opera having previously written the libretti for Thomas’ Mignon and Gounod’s Faust. Technically, the opera is an adaptation of an adaptation, as the librettists leaned on Alexandre Dumas’ French translation of the play as their main source material. After all, the opera would be performed to a French audience, who would be more familiar with Dumas’ version. Unlike Othello, Hamlet needed more pruning given the play’s cast of over 30 characters and four-hour runtime. Despite this, Thomas’ opera actually starts before the opening of the play, with the wedding of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius. Somewhat more shockingly for the Shakespeare purist, Hamlet survives the end of the opera as he does in Dumas’ ‘translation’.

As for Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, he is given a greater excuse in his refusal to marry her. Ophelia’s father, Polonius, becomes a conspirator in the murder of Hamlet’s father and that is why Hamlet spurns Ophelia. More importantly, Hamlet does not kill Polonius by mistake as he does in Shakespeare’s play, and so Ophelia is not grieving. Instead, she becomes a very 19th-century creature made mad by the rejection of love and the emptiness which that leaves in her.

Act 1: Marche et Coeur    )
Act 4: Fête du Printemps ) See printed programme for libretto and translation.
Act 4: Final                          )
Shakespeare’s equivalent text
Hamlet Act 4, Scene 7, lines 188, 190-191, 196-203:


Gertrude                Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
                                 There is a willow grows askant the brook
                                 That shows his (hoar) leaves in the glassy stream.
                                 There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
                                 Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
                                 When down her weedy trophies and herself
                                 Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
                                 And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
                                 Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
                                 As one incapable of her own distress

Giuseppe Verdi
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave

It is almost ironic that it was in Macbeth, a story of freedom versus tyranny, that Verdi appears to have been at his most tyrannical. This was a plot that Verdi had passionately strong views on. He gave his librettist a prose draft that he had written himself and was in close contact with the poor Francesco Maria Piave to ensure his libretto was exactly what Verdi wanted. One can’t help but read a certain frustration into the letter from Verdi to Piave that reads: ‘This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of the human spirit. If we can’t do something great with it, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary.’ Not only that, but Verdi had his friend and poet Andrea Maffei make amendments and additions to the libretto. And it wasn’t just in the writing of the opera; Verdi similarly involved himself in the first production, giving the scene designer a lesson in Scottish history, specifying the exact number of witches (three groups of six), and insisting on the title role being sung by Felice Varesi. Whilst operas are usually the collaboration of several people, this feels like the creation of Verdi alone with others providing technical abilities that could put his vision onto the stage. Thank goodness it paid off, even to the point that Verdi considered it worthy of dedication to Antonio Barezzi, the father of his late wife and Verdi’s ‘benefactor, father and friend’.

Act 1: S’allontonaro!     )
Act 2: Coro di Sicari       ) See printed programme for libretto and translation
Act 4: Patria Oppressa )
Shakespeare’s equivalent text
Macbeth Act 1, Scene 1, lines 1-8:


1st Witch               When shall we three meet again?
                                 In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2nd Witch              When the hurly-burly’s done,
       When the battle’s lost and won.
3rd Witch               That will be ere the set of sun.
1st Witch                Where the place?
2nd Witch              Upon the heath.
3rd Witch               There to meet with Macbeth.


Macbeth Act 3, Scene 3, lines 1-10:

1st Murderer         But who did bid thee join with us?
3rd Murderer        Macbeth.
2nd Murderer [to the 1st murderer]
       He needs not our mistrust, since he delivers
                                 Our offices and what we have to do
                                 To the direction just.
1st Murderer        Then stand with us. –
                                 The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day.
                                 Now spurs the lated traveler apace
                                 To gain the timely inn, and near approaches
                                 The subject of our watch.

Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3, lines 5-9:

Macduff                  Each new morn
       New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrow
                                 Strike heaven on the face, that is resounds
                                 As if it felt with Scotland, and yelled out
                                 Like syllable of dolor.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Roméo et Juliette
Librettists: Jules Barbier and Michel Carré

Of all the many translated adaptations of Shakespeare, this is probably the one that stays closest to the original text, even including directly translated passages as opposed to interpretations. Having said that, Barbier and Carré still needed to make some alterations to allow the Shakespearean tragedy to become a French Romantic Grand Opera. Take Capulet’s ball at the opening, for example, where we hear from the gathered guests rather than only about them. Or the Epithalamium, a wedding poem, which in this case allows four different points of view to be heard in parallel like short soliloquies; each character voicing their own thoughts without being ‘heard’ by the other characters. This, along with the necessary cutting of much of the play, allows the opera to be even more focussed in on the action surrounding Romeo and Juliet themselves, whilst Paris is barely more than a walk-on part, and Montague has been cut entirely. Romeo and Juliet must be the widest known of Shakespeare’s plays, and in this masterpiece, Gounod successfully paid homage to the bard in breathing new life into his tale star-crossed lovers.

Prologue                          )
Act 1: L’heure s’envole ) See printed programme for libretto and translation
Act 3: O jour de deuil!  )
Act 4: Epithalamium    )
Shakespeare’s equivalent text


Romeo and Juliet The Prologue, lines 1-8:

                                 Two households, both alike in dignity
                                 (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
                                 From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
                                 Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
                                 From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
                                 A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
                                 Whose misadventured piteous oerthrows
                                 Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.


Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 1 lines 148-192:

Capulet’s wife      Tybalt, my cousin, O my brother’s child!
                                 O Prince, O cousin, husband, O, the blood is spilles
                                 Of my dear kinsman! Prince, as thou art true,
                                 For blood of ours shed blood of Montague.
                                 O cousin, cousin!


Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Béatrice at Bénédict
Librettist: Hector Berlioz


Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict is notable within the context of tonight’s programme for a few reasons. Firstly, because Berlioz took on the task of writing the libretto himself. He had already had success with Les Troyens in being librettist and composer. Not only that, but he conducted the first two performances himself, so, clearly, as with Verdi, he had a clear vision of what he wanted from the music. The opera also stands out as an adaptation that doesn’t seek to recreate the main plot of Much Ado About Nothing on which it is based. Berlioz instead chose to focus in on the subplot of the bickering Beatrice and Benedict, and invented the singer-composer Somarone, whose role in the opera is to come up with a suitable wedding song for the nuptials of Claudio and Héro. Whilst the spoken dialogue of the play is formed of fairly close translations of Shakespeare’s text, Berlioz allowed himself creative freedom in the texts of the songs.

Act 1: Le More est en fuite                           )
Act 1: Epithalame Grotesque                      ) See printed programme for libretto and translation
Act 2: Improvisation et Choeur à Boire    )




Otto Nicolai (1810-1849)

Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Librettist: Saloman Hermann Mosenthal

Like Berlioz with Béatrice et Bénédict, Nicolai chose to set his adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor as a singspiel with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers. This allowed Nicolai and his librettist, Saloman Hermann Mosenthal to include far more of Shakespeare’s plot than if they had created a through-composed opera. The synopsis of Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor reads with all the complexity of a play. Nicolai described this work as a comic- fantasy opera, which just about sums up the two sides of the piece. On the one hand a romp with the music almost breaking out into a full can-can, and on the other, romantic songs such as the moonrise. Die Lustigen is Nicolai’s best-known work, but that might not have been the case had he not sadly collapsed and died from a stroke just two months after the première, at the age of 38.

Act 3: Ballett und Chor der Elfen     )
Act 3: O Süßer Mond                           ) See printed programme for libretto and translation
Act 3: Allgemeiner Tanz und Chor   )
Shakespeare’s equivalent text
The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 5, Scene 5, lines 40-43:


Mistress Quickly Fairies black, gray, green, and white,
                                 You moonshine revelers and shades of night,
                                 You orphan heirs of fixèd destiny,
                                 Attend your office and your quality

The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 5, Scene 5, lines 99-108:

Fairies                    Fie on sinful fantasy!
                                 Fie on lust and luxury!
                                 Lust is but a bloody fire
                                 Kindled with unchaste desire,
                                 Fed in heart whose flames aspire
                                 As thoughts do blow them higher and higher.
                                 Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
                                 Pinch him for his villainy.
                                 Pinch him and burn him and turn him about,
                                 Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out

Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958)
Sir John in Love
Librettists: William Shakespeare and others

Well, it took a while, but we have some actual Shakespeare in our concert. Vaughan-Williams adapted Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor by using chunks of Shakespeare’s words interspersed with Vaughan-Williams’ own reworking of the text and with supplemental texts by Philip Sidney, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, and dramatist pair, Beaumont and Fletcher. These other authors, poets and dramatists were all writers from the late 16th and early 17th centuries chosen to fit smoothly with Shakespeare’s words. As well as using old words, Vaughan-Williams weaves English folk tunes, including Greensleeves, into the score. The opera was given its first performance at the Royal College of Music where Vaughan-Williams taught composition.

Vile Worm, thou wast o’erlooked
See printed programme for libretto.


Shakespeare’s and other equivalent text
The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 5, Scene 5, lines 85-88, 93-98, 105-108 and ‘Pinch him,
pinch him black and blue’ by John Lyly.


The Merry Wives of Windsor Act 5, Scene 5:

Evans                      But stay! I smell a man of middle earth.
Falstaff                   Heaven defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he transform me to a piece of
Pistol                       Vile worm, thou wast o’erlooked even in thy birth.
Mistress Quickly  With trial-fire touch me his finger-end.
                                  If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
                                  And turn him to no pain. But if he start,
                                  It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.
Pistol                       A trial, come.
Mistress Quickly  About him, fairies. Sing a scornful rhyme;
                                  And as you sing, pinch him to your time.
Fairies                     Fie on sinful fantasy!
                                  Fie on lust and luxury!
                                  Lust is but a bloody fire
                                  Kindled with unchaste desire,
                                  Fed in heart whose flames aspire
                                  As thoughts do blow them higher and higher.
                                  Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
                                  Pinch him for his villainy.
                                  Pinch him and burn him and turn him about,
                                  Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out.

Serenade to Music
Text: William Shakespeare
See printed programme for libretto.

We finish our concert not with opera, but with Vaughan-Williams’ gorgeous Serenade to Music. Written to mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s first concert, Vaughan-Williams selected words about music and the music of the spheres, taken from The Merchant of Venice. The piece was written for sixteen soloists, selected by Sir Henry and Vaughan-Williams, and orchestra. Those original soloists were:

Sopranos - Isobel Baillie, Lilian Stiles-Allen, Elsie Suddaby and Eva Turner;
Mezzo-sopranos - Muriel Brunskill, Astra Desmond, Mary Jarred and Margaret Balfour;
Tenors - Heddle Nash, Frank Titterton, Walter Widdop and Parry Jones;
Baritones - Harold Williams and Roy Henderson; Basses - Robert East and Norman Allinn.

Another musician involved in the concert was Rachmaninov, who performed his second piano concerto in the first half. He was brought to tears by the beauty of Vaughan-Williams’ music. We will, of course, be aiming for the same effect tonight.

Shakespeare’s equivalent text
The Merchant of Venice Act 5, Scene 1, lines 62-78, 92-97, 106-107, 109-110, 116-119:


Lorenzo                   How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank,
                                  Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
                                  Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
                                  Become the touches of sweet harmony.
                                  Look how the floor of heaven
                                  Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
                                  There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
                                  But in his motion like an angel sings,
                                  Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
                                  Such harmony is in immortal souls,
                                  But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
                                  Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
                                  Come, ho! And wake Diana with a hymn.
                                  With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
                                  And draw her home with music.
Jessica                     I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
Lorenzo                   The reason is, your spirits are attentive.

                                  The man that hath no music in himself,
                                  Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
                                  Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
                                  The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
                                  And his affections dark as Erebus.
                                  Let no such man be trusted.
Portia                       Music, Hark!
Nerissa                    It is your music of the house.
Portia                       Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Nerissa                    Silence bestows that virtue on it,
Portia                       How many things by seasons seasoned are

                                  To their right praise and true perfection!
                                  Peace, ho! The moon sleeps with Endymion
                                  And would not be awaked!

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