Shakespeare and opera have an uneasy relationship. Opera offers some resources that promise the lover of Shakespeare further, or at least different, illumination. The presence of orchestra and chorus can supply a heft and depth in crowd scenes that is more difficult to achieve through words spoken on the stage. In the hands of a first-rate composer, music can pierce into the inner life of a character in a way that reveals new, or at least complementary, depths of meaning. Music also offers possibilities of exchange and reciprocity, in tightly scored ensembles, that are more difficulty to achieve in plain words. For all of these reasons, Giuseppe Verdi’s three great Shakespeare operas, Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893) are works that fully equal Shakespeare in power of insight, although they attain slightly different insights and through different routes. (Some would rank Macbeth lower, but though its music is certainly more conventional than that of the two great late operas, it is a splendid work in its own right. In some stretches, for example Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking scene, it markedly enlarges the emotional possibilities of the original.)
On the other hand, opera has some clear drawbacks. Shakespeare’s crisp language can become cluttered and overburdened when a second-rate composer adds to it all sorts of musical frills and froth. First-rate singers are usually mature bodies, and thus may be more suited to play some Shakespearean roles than others. Thus, there is no difficulty casting Falstaff credibly, but there is great difficulty in the present instance.
Charles Gounod (1818-93) is a close contemporary of Verdi (1813-1901). But he is no Verdi. In general I have doubts about whether Shakespeare ever translates well into French operatic music. Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868) is a particularly annoying example, with its chorus about how wine makes sorrows go away, and with its florid tour de force mad scene for Ophelia that makes a good extract for a good coloratura soprano’s aria recording, but has little to do with the pathos and tragedy of the original. Gounod is a better composer than Thomas, and his setting of Roméo et Juliette (1867) has some lovely lyrical moments, such as Roméo’s aria, “Ah lève-toi, soleil.” It also uses the chorus to advantage, for the most part, providing a running commentary on the fatal rivalry of the houses. But it is fundamentally an overblown and therefore frivolous work. Shakespeare’s tragedy is spare, intimate, pared down to essentials. It does not do well when inflated to enormous proportions, and its haunting fragile story becomes trite when so bloated.
Let it be said that Lyric has staged this work extremely well, thanks to stage director Bartlett Sher, borrowed from Broadway. The action is rapid, clean, and comprehensible. The ever-impressive Lyric chorus, under the direction of Michael Black, enacts a variety of roles with impeccable musicianship and diction, great theatrical skill, and admirably deft staging. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume, a master of French operatic style, leads the orchestra in a nuanced performance. Susanna Phillips, although obviously a strong mature woman, as she must be to sing Juliette’s music, which she powerfully does, has been well directed to act girlish, and both Mercutio (Joshua Hopkins) and Tybalt (Jason Slayden), in addition to singing well, act impressively, showing the payoff of good theatrical coaching. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, as Friar Laurence, gives perhaps the most fully integrated performance of all, both vocally and theatrically. And the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, while making no attempt at all to impersonate a dashing young man, sings Roméo’s music with appealing heft and clarity. (His voice overpowers Phillips’s at times, creating some musical problems.) The updating from Renaissance Verona to the eighteenth century works well, giving Catherine Zuber the opportunity to create some stunning costumes.
Still, it is ultimately a mediocre work. Juliette’s opening aria, the famous Waltz Song, “Je veux vivre,” could be taken from virtually any French opera, and it does little to characterize the vulnerable extremely young girl, particularly when, as must be the case, it is sung by a muscular and robust woman in mid-life. And although the opening Chorus, resetting the “Two houses” prologue, as the citizens of the Chorus face the audience solemnly, adds a new dimension of gravity to that part of Shakespeare’s work, and although Roméo’s aria already mentioned at least provides an element of haunting pathos and lyricism that sits well with the character, there is far too little that shows us anything new or insightful, far too much that seems cluttered and overblown. It is ultimately, therefore, a boring work. Not necessarily a boring performance: but an admirable performance of a boring work.
Don’t take all this on trust from me. I happen to dislike much French opera, and I grant that this is the best production of this opera you are likely to see in a long time. So, Shakespeareans, go, but don’t expect more than Gounod can deliver. As for me, I wait with eager expectation for my next City Desk 400 opera assignment, Verdi’s Falstaff at the CSO in April: a magnificent work, performed under the baton of the greatest living Verdi conductor, Riccardo Muti.
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at University of Chicago, appointed in the philosophy department and the law school. She writes on ethical and political philosophy, the history of Greek and Roman philosophy, feminism, gay rights and the nature of the emotions. She is the 2016 winner of the Kyoto Prize in Philosophy and the 2017 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. She received her MA and PhD from Harvard, her BA from New York University and fifty-six honorary doctorates from universities in various countries. Read more…