We spent some time we didn’t have this evening, watching a Glyndbourne production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Some quick thoughts;
Verdi did three Shakespeare Operas—Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, of which Macbeth is, by any measure, the weakest. But that is more a testimony to the strength of the others than it is to any intrinsic deficiency on the part of Macbeth. Granted, Verdi can’t do all the leaps and swoops now that he learned to do later—when you get right down to it, he is rather a slow starter. But that sets the bar unacceptably high: by most measures, nothing exceeds the later Verdi. Meanwhile of the early Verdis that remain in performance-Macbeth is far more polished than Nabucco, far more arresting than Luisa Miller (which I can swear we saw just a couple of years back—but Mrs. B says she can’t even remember it).
What’s really interesting is the way Verdi deals with Shakespeare. I embrace the notion that to make a good movie, you need a mediocre book which is why Gone with the Wind (say) or Bridges of Madison County are so much more fun to watch than the yawners from Merchant-Ivory.
It’s hard to make that theory fit here. Granted, maybe you could say that Falstaff is a great opera based on a weak play (Merry Wives of
Macbeth draws on a much stronger play than Merry Wives, and it never achieves the heights of Otello. But Macbeth honors its source: it’s not an insult, and it’s not just a visual aid. Over and over, watching the opera, I found myself thinking—you know, this really is a glorious play. That’s a compliment to Verdi. He knew it was glorious, and even if he did not transcend his source, still he knew how to convey has own sense of awe and wonder.
Afterthought re slow starter: By the age of 46, Shakespeare had pretty much closed up shop. After the age of 46, Verdi still had Otello and Falstaff ahead of him –and also La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos and Aida. He may have been a late starter, but I can’t think of anyone comparable who lasted longer, except Sophocles (who, as it is said, was still going at 90).
Afterthought on sources: Aside from Shakespeare, Verdi also drew heaviliy on Schiller, about whom I know almost nothing (except as filtered through opera). I wonder if Verdi’s relation to Schiller is anything like his relation to Shakespeare?