“Ah, Shakespeare, Shakespeare!” exclaimed Giuseppe Verdi in 1872. “The great maestro of the human heart.”
Twenty-five years before, as a young man, Verdi had set “Macbeth,” and his final two operas to come, the fruits of his old age, would be “Otello,” in 1887, and “Falstaff,” in 1893, as he turned 80. He contemplated settings of “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Germans sometimes label Mozart the Shakespeare of music, but no composer cared about this playwright more than Verdi. And Italian opera companies, now opening their seasons under stressful pandemic conditions, are looking to these works for the cathartic secrets of the heart.
There were glittering opening nights recently at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, with an “Otello” starring Jonas Kaufmann, and at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, with “Macbeth” and Anna Netrebko. In Florence, John Eliot Gardiner conducted a new production of “Falstaff,” and the Rome Opera presented a world-premiere setting of “Julius Caesar,” composed by Giorgio Battistelli. (The trend isn’t confined to Italy: A recent adaptation of “Hamlet,” by the Australian composer Brett Dean, will come to the Metropolitan Opera in May.)
Gardiner is an early-music specialist, and he approaches Verdi with the Renaissance of Shakespeare and Monteverdi in mind, emphasizing lightness, clarity and agility. In an interview he said that Monteverdi created the model for through-composed operas (like “Falstaff”) that blur the distinction between aria and declamation, using the music to underline the text, and exploring — like Shakespeare, Monteverdi’s contemporary — the full dimensions of the human condition.
Falstaff’s declamations were magnificently delivered by the baritone Nicola Alaimo: In the first act the clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets joined with him in saluting his splendid belly. Gardiner presided over the delicate nocturnal tones of the final scene, which began with a hint of early music: a musician alone onstage playing a valveless horn.
The theatrical genius of Shakespeare often nests a play within the play, and Verdi captures this brilliantly in “Otello” and “Falstaff,” both with librettos by Arrigo Boito. In “Falstaff” the tricking and trapping of the libertine knight is masterminded by Alice Ford, one of the merry wives of Windsor — sung in Florence with lovely vivacity by the soprano Ailyn Pérez.
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In “Otello” the nested play is “staged” by Iago — instilling and amplifying jealousy — and on a night when many had come to hear Kaufmann as the tormented hero, the young Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko was hypnotically compelling as the villain. (Victor Maurel created both Iago and Falstaff, and Verdi required him to declaim, musically, in Shakespearean fashion — in Iago’s nihilist “Credo,” as in Falstaff’s mockery of honor.)
In Naples, the conductor Michele Mariotti seemed to sing — or at least mouth — every word along with his singers, presiding over a subtle performance of many moods and colorings. Since 2017 Kaufmann has been singing Otello, Verdi’s most challenging dramatic tenor role, and it suits him beautifully: the heroic moments that draw on his Wagnerian forcefulness, and the anguished lyricism and modulated dynamics that have always been features of his artistry.
He performed with silvery gray hair, a visibly aging titan. Desdemona was the soprano Maria Agresta, capable of exquisite grace but also dramatic urgency. Mario Martone’s production, set in a contemporary military encampment, put Desdemona in soldier’s fatigues, and even had her pulling a gun on Otello in an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to defend her life.
Verdi’s Shakespeare is so important to Italian operatic culture that it was bold indeed for the Rome Opera to open with Battistelli’s “Julius Caesar.” Robert Carsen’s production presented Roman statesmen in modern suits, and the ancient Senate was represented by an auditorium resembling the Italian Parliament. The English-language libretto (by Ian Burton) used Shakespeare’s words, and Battistelli said in an interview that he listened carefully to the syllabification of the English verse before composing the music.
Influenced by atonal composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, Battistelli even makes use of Schoenbergian Sprechgesang — suspended between singing and speech — for the delivery of some of the text. The great speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral were addressed to the chorus, which responded with volatile moods: aroused, becalmed, confused, manipulated. Battistelli said he sees his opera as relevant for understanding populist and authoritarian presences in politics today; in Rome, the audience looks up at an inscription over the proscenium acknowledging Benito Mussolini’s help in restoring the opera house in 1928.
Battistelli makes use of an extended percussion section — located in one of the side boxes above the orchestra — to establish an unsettling mood: the tam-tam and snare drum, bells and glockenspiel, bongos and marimba, cymbals and gongs. The score, conducted with great commitment by Daniele Gatti, creates a sense of uncanniness and suspense that also evokes cinematic music. Diverging from Shakespeare, the opera offers a large musical role to the ghost of Caesar, who, returning to the stage in the concluding act — like the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni” — actively participates in the suicides of his assassins.
“I want Lady Macbeth ugly and bad,” Verdi once said, adding that even her voice should be not altogether beautiful, but “harsh, stifled and dark.” At La Scala, however, Netrebko offered an undeniably glamorous sound and presence, her lower and middle registers more gorgeous than ever, and her top notes emerging with thrilling beauty. The baritone Luca Salsi was extraordinary in the challenging title role, with its whispered introspection and agonized exclamations, while the conductor, Riccardo Chailly, conjured the dark orchestral moods of Verdi’s first Shakespearean masterpiece.
Salsi’s Macbeth suffers spiritually, almost from the start, singing on his knees in the great duet that follows the murder of Duncan, while Netrebko was at her most haunting in the sinister waltz rhythm of “La luce langue,” dismissing the dead in a nihilistic spirit as dark as Iago’s.
In Davide Livermore’s production, the Macbeths live in a rotating penthouse that looks out on a skyscraper city projected as if in an urban fantasy video game. The opera begins with Macbeth and Banquo performing a gangster execution during the prelude; they then encounter the witches in an underground parking garage before ascending (while singing their duet) in the building elevator. Netrebko soon steps into the same elevator during her mesmerizing summoning of dark spirits.
The cast was acclaimed by the audience. But the biggest ovation of the night came before the opera began, when the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, entered his box. The audience cheered for a full six minutes, with cries of “bis” — which usually means “encore” at the opera, but was here a call on the president to consider a second term.
Mattarella has been a well-loved leader through the pandemic, which reached Italy before the rest of Europe in February 2020, and struck Milan hard. There was no opening night for La Scala last year, so this year’s was a gesture of faith in the future.
When the last act began with the hushed chorus “Patria oppressa” — a grim reaction to Macbeth’s oppressive rule — it was hard not to think of the tragedies of the past two years. With the opening of new opera seasons, the carefully masked and vaccinated Italian public has taken a tentative step toward normal life. At the end of “Falstaff,” Alice Ford tells her co-conspirators that when the farce in the woods is finished, “ci smaschereremo” — “we will unmask” — to come together in a spirit of final celebration.
They do — and we will, too. But not quite yet.
Larry Wolff is a professor of European history at New York University and the author of “The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage.”