Shakespeare and Opera: The Strange But True Story of Verdi's King Lear

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Summertime always seems to bring new productions of William Shakespeare’s plays. Wherever you are reading this, there is probably one of the Bard’s plays being produced somewhere nearby. And New Yorkers have not seen so much Shakespeare in a long time.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) had a spring season that included Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors and King Lear, this last one starring Derek Jacobi in an epochal performance. Lear has had many productions in recent years in New York and elsewhere, with acting giants such as Ian McKellen, Ian Holm and Christopher Plummer doing the heavy lifting in this Hamlet for senior actors.

The venerable Public Theater is presenting its annual Shakespeare in the Park free performances at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. This year’s offerings are Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. In March, the Public presented an excellent production of the seldom-seen Timon of Athens with Richard Thomas in the title role. One of the hottest tickets in town is to any of the five plays (As You Like It; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Romeo and Juliet; Winter’s Tale) presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, visiting New York as the centerpiece of the annual Lincoln Center Festival.

And on Tuesday, New York City Opera announced a partnership with the Public Theater that would bring a Shakespeare-based opera to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in the fall of 2012, part of what is expected to be a continuing joint venture.

But these are only the most conspicuous offerings. You can see scenes from Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear on subway trains. Or Henry V with an all-female cast in St. Nicholas Park or in Battery Park and Governor’s Island, with part of the performance taking place on a ferry connecting the two places. 

Verdi's Missing Masterpiece

While many of Shakespeare’s plays are on view in the city this year, it seems like the ones getting the most stagings are Macbeth and King Lear. This makes me think of Giuseppe Verdi, who wrote three brilliant operas based on Shakespeare: Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff (drawn from Henry IV, Part One and The Merry Wives of Windsor). And then there is the great Shakespeare opera that Verdi struggled to create, but did not: Il Re Lear.

The play occupied Verdi’s thought for a very long time. As early as June 1843, when he had written only four operas, he corresponded with the management of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice about Ernani, which would be his fifth opera. He said that if he could have the services of baritone Giorgio Ronconi (1810-1890), the first Nabucco in 1842, he would create an operatic King Lear for the singer. Ronconi was to have sung the title role of Oberto, Verdi’s first opera (1839)  He sang in casts of Ernani as Don Carlo and as Francesco Foscari in I Due Foscari (both in 1844). Somehow Ronconi was unavailable or uninterested in Lear.

Verdi returned to the subject in 1848 and then got in touch with librettist Salvadore Cammarano, who did Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux for Donizetti and Alzira, La Battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller (1849) and would later write most of Il Trovatore. In a long letter (February 28, 1850) Verdi outlined his ideas to Cammarano: “Re Lear as a play is so vast and interwoven that it would seem to be impossible to fashion an opera from it. But, examining it closely it seems that the challenges, though large, are not insurmountable. You know that you should not treat this play using forms and methods that are familiar, but rather should treat it in an entirely new manner, one that is vast and shows no regard for customary forms.”

The composer then gave guidelines for creating the characters. “It seems to me that the principal roles are five: Lear, Cordelia, the Fool, Edmund and Edgar. There will be two smaller roles for women (Lear’s older daughters), Regana and Gonerilla (the latter perhaps more prominent) and two smaller roles for basses (as in Luisa Miller): Kent and Gloucester. All the rest are smaller roles.”

Cammarano created something of a first draft, structured in five acts, but it was unwieldy and took in too much of the action of the play. Crucially, it did not conform to Verdi’s intention and skill in discarding large parts of plays and focusing on the essential drama and characters (Otello is the perfect example of this). Cammarano died in the summer of 1852, when Il Trovatore was not quite complete and Il Re Lear needed a lot of work. Verdi turned to Antonio Somma in 1853 and a new Lear took shape.

How This King Lear Would Sound

Verdi thought to make the opera in three acts, four at most. It would have the same five principal roles he had envisioned earlier, but with the unusual change that the Fool would be a contralto.

The first act would be the division of Lear’s lands and a departure aria for Cordelia. Then would come two court scenes concluding with aria of rage by Lear. Act two, he said, would have the storm, then other scenes, then a judgment scene, which would be "deeply original and moving."

Act three “begins with the sleeping Lear, Cordelia comes to him, they sing a sublime duet. Then there is a Battle, then her death scene of her and, finally, that of Lear.

Somma (who also wrote the text for Un Ballo in Maschera) finished a libretto in the spring of 1856, but Verdi seemed to never have the occasion to set it to music. This puzzles me because he was industrious and deliberate and had devoted so much time and thought to this project. Verdi wrote all but one of his operas on commission (Il Trovatore) but certainly did not have to create an opera for purely financial reasons by this time. He had written Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata in the intervening years, all of which brought him abundant income as did revivals of his older works. 

In a letter in 1856, he said to do Re Lear, “one would need an artist baritone in every sense of that phrase, for example, as was Giorgio Ronconi.” By that point Ronconi (right) was not performing. Perhaps Verdi was making an excuse or he was genuinely not inspired by the baritones at his disposal.

(It makes me wonder about Felice Varesi (1813-1889), the first Rigoletto. Verdi created the role of Macbeth (1847) with Varesi in mind and did the same four years later with Rigoletto. Two years later, in 1853, the baritone was the first Giorgio Germont in La Traviata. Right after that, his voice declined and, though his career continued to 1865, he was no longer the force he was in his prime. I suspect that if Varesi had remained a potent singer, Verdi would have written Il Re Lear for him.)

There were more false starts through the years. Verdi probably wrote music for Lear in late 1850s. It appears that Leonora’s aria in act one of La Forza del Destino, “Me pellegrina e orfana,” had text and perhaps music that Verdi wrote for Cordelia in the first act of his Lear. Even in 1865, when the Paris Opera approached Verdi for the opera that would ultimately become Don Carlo, he wanted to do Lear. Why did he not do it? He wrote, “Re Lear is magnificent, sublime, pathetic, but it does not have enough scenic splendor for the Paris Opera.”

After that, there is no evidence that Verdi returned to the play, but this story is instructive. Verdi hardly suffered from any kind of writer’s block, but was such a man of the theater that he realized that certain subjects or source material were not translatable into the operatic form. I think that the editing, telescoping and guidance he gave for shaping this opera could inform a libretto -- perhaps in English -- to be used by a contemporary composer.

This is the first of an ongoing series about Shakespeare and opera that I plan to write. Many of the Bard’s plays have become operas, with Romeo and Juliet perhaps the most frequently used. I would like to hear from you about the Shakespeare operas you like as well as plays of his you think are ready to become operas. Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.