William Shakespeare stands as tall in the musical world as he does in the theater. More than 20,000 professional and published adaptions of the Bard’s works in every conceivable form have appeared from the Elizabethan period through 1989, according to one reference book. And that number has only mushroomed in the decades since.
“More than Heine or Goethe or any other playwright, he’s the guy that everyone sets by a long distance,” said Christopher R. Wilson, a professor of music at the University of Hull in England. He contributed to that massive catalog, originally published in 1991, and is currently co-editing The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Music, to be released in 2020 by the Oxford University Press.
“There’s a great increase in [adaptations in] the 19th century, when Shakespeare becomes an international best seller,” Wilson said. “He becomes globally marketable. And I guess if you’re looking around for a topic or you’re looking around for something that is going to sell your music, then why not choose someone who is internationally famous?”
Two of those Shakespearean adaptations — one of the least known and one of the most famous — will be showcased during the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season at Orchestra Hall. Two scenes from Samuel Barber’s ill-fated 1966 opera, Antony and Cleopatra, will be featured Nov. 21-24 with soprano Sally Matthews, guest conductor Juanjo Mena and women from the orchestra’s chorus. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved Romeo and Juliet, a kind of symphonic poem based on three narrative threads from the play, will anchor the annual Symphony Ball concert on Sept. 21. “If you want the greatest romantic symphonic fantasy overture, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is it,” Wilson said. (Selections from a third Shakespearean adaptation, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, will be heard Nov. 16 during the CSO’s second of two concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall.)
Tchaikovsky wrote his Overture-Fantasia, as he subtitled the work, in 1869 at the suggestion of his mentor Mily Balakirev, who offered his overture, King Lear, as a model. The composer later accepted some of the Balakirev’s criticisms and reworked the piece, adding its now familiar hymn-like, modal opening, premiering that second version in 1872. In 1880, he rewrote the piece yet again, adding the funeral-march coda. This final version, which received its debut in 1886, is the one that is usually performed today. “There’s so much in that overture,” Wilson said. “It’s not just one of the world’s greatest tunes, but it’s also the subtlety of the whole piece.”
An obvious fan of the Bard, Tchaikovsky went on to write two other Shakespeare-inspired works: The Tempest and Hamlet.
Of the hundreds of operatic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that exist, Wilson points to six that he believes are at the top of the list, beginning with Gioachino Rossini’s Otello, which Wilson calls the first important operatic adaptation of the 19th century. The 1816 work, which had its debut in Naples, is based on a French adaptation of the play by Jean-François Ducis that deviates from the original. Five years after its debut, the opera was staged in Paris, influencing Gounod and Berlioz, and quickly moved on to Paris and New York City. “It was just an absolute world hit,” Wilson said. “So much so that it held sway through most of the 19th century as the great Shakespearean opera.”
Verdi created three operas based on Shakespeare plays: Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). “My favorite by far is Otello, one of the great romantic operas,” Wilson said. “That again became an immediate sensation and moved to Paris, where he composed a whole set of ballet music for it, which is very rarely heard or ever done but it’s sensational music. Verdi didn’t write symphonies but he certainly wrote amazing orchestral music.”
Of Shakespearean operas of more recent vintage, Wilson points to Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) and Thomas Adès’ The Tempest (2004). The former has a libretto adapted from the original play by Britten and his partner, Peter Pears. “It’s just stunning,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t wear with time. It just feels fresh and new.”
Barber wrote his third opera, Antony and Cleopatra, for the opening of New York’s Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in 1966, and it caved under the expectations for the work, drawing negative reviews from every direction. “Almost everything about the evening, artistically speaking, failed in total impact,” wrote music critic Harold Schonberg in the New York Times. He criticized Barber’s score as a something of a hybrid: “neither full traditional nor fully modern; skillfully put together but lacking ardor and eloquence; big in sound but stingy with arresting melodic ideas.”
The biggest fault that Wilson sees in this opera is its use of Shakespeare’s original language, which is not as graceful and seamless as it is in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “That works or it doesn’t work,” he said. “It works for Midsummer’s Night Dream, because people know Midsummer Night’s Dream, and if you don’t get all the words, it doesn’t matter too much. But Antony and Cleopatra is not so straightforward. It’s full of intrigue.”
The challenge for any operatic adaptation of Shakespeare is paring down the number of scenes and characters so that it is manageable on an operatic stage, where singing takes twice as long as speaking the text. (King Lear is so complicated, Wilson said, that there is no notable operatic take on the play.) Adapting Shakespeare’s original language involves considerably more difficulty, because of the playwright’s complex wordplay and multiple layers of meaning.
Such faults aside, Wilson believes that the main reasons for Antony and Cleopatra’s failure had more to do with factors outside the opera, including director Franco Zeffirelli’s overblown production, and the hype surrounding the opening of the opera house. “There are some tremendous arias,” he said. “There are some tremendous moments in it, but I just wonder if the music wasn’t sold as music. It was sold as an occasion, so it fell on that account.”
Wilson is not surprised that Antony and Cleopatra is making something of a comeback. Now that more than a half century has passed since its debut, it is now possible set aside any thoughts of the original production and judge the opera on its own merits. It helps that classical-music world has gotten beyond its fixation with atonal or serialist music, an academic approach that paid little heed to audience appeal and caused Barber to be dismissed as a “dated tonal composer.” The field is now much more open to sounds and approaches of all kinds. “We want tunes,” Wilson said. “We want accessible music. I think the opera deserves looking at.”