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Men of the Theater

by Garry Wills

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-670-02304-2
Publisher: Viking

One genius interprets another: English to Italian, words to lyrics, immortal drama to overpowering opera.

In his latest, Wills (History/Northwestern Univ.; Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer, 2010, etc.) proves once again that he isn’t just a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, full-time public intellectual and Catholic apologist who is fluent in Greek and Latin. In examining how the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) turned three Shakespeare plays into classics of his own, the authors demonstrates how an adaptation can both analyze and interpret its source of inspiration. Wills finds that these two creative dynamos, separated by two centuries, had much in common; both were as productive as they were pragmatic, each tailoring their work to the actors or singers who were available. Although Verdi could not speak English, he perfectly grasped Shakespeare’s complexities. The duets of Macbeth underscore the intent of the devious and deviant Lord and Lady: “[Macbeth] and his wife talk past each other, not to each other, hiding from each other, and each hiding from him- or herself. It is all there in the music.” With Otello, Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito turned a fiercely pessimistic play into a nihilistic one, in which Iago sees himself as the devoted servant of a cruel God. With Falstaff, he created virtually a new play, piecing together the larger-than-life character from the Shakespeare’s history plays and his lesser comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Just as Verdi “gave cosmic reach to Otello’s music,” writes the author, “he turns Falstaff into a force of nature, an earth-daimon.” Wills isn’t afraid to plumb the subterranean depths and the delicate infrastructure of these works.

While the book has an enormous amount to teach devotees of either Shakespeare or Verdi, opera fans in particular will enjoy the author’s close and illuminating attention to backstage history, as well as words, music and phrasing.