As a consciousness-raiser for its May 8 performance of Guiseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Opera Santa Barbara has concocted entertainment called Ode to Opera: Shakespearean Opera Scenes — scenes from other operas based on Shakespeare’s plays, fully staged with sets and costumes, starring talented young singers from all over the country and directed by James Marvel.
The opera’s 2010 Young Artists will take to the boards of Victoria Hall Theater at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
The program includes scenes from Falstaff (1893) by Verdi (Act I, Scene 2); Roméo et Juliette (1867) by Charles Gounod (Act 1: “Juliette’s Waltz”/Act II: Full/Act III, Scene 2: complete scene through Duke’s entrance); Otello (1887) by Verdi (Act IV; “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria”); Hamlet (1868) by Ambroise Thomas (Act IV, Scene 2: Scène et air d’Ophélie); and, as an encore, “Brush up your Shakespeare” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew).
You’ll note that all of these operas date from the later 19th century. Shakespeare (1564-1616) ) owes his present, universally conceded, supremacy to his revival by the romantic poets and composers of the early 19th century. Before that, especially on the continent, you will find no operas based on his plays (except in Restoration England). In the 1820s, it all changed.
In 1827, an English theater troupe visited Paris. One of the plays they put on was Hamlet, with Ophelia played by the beautiful Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Hector Berlioz, age 24, was in the audience. He was transformed.
In his Memoires he wrote: “Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightening flash of that discovery revealed to me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest corners. I recognized the meaning of grandeur, beauty, dramatic truth …” The next day, he saw Miss Smithson as Juliet. “I knew I was lost. … An English critic stated … that after seeing Miss Smithson as Juliet I exclaimed, ‘I shall marry that woman and write my greatest symphony on the play!’ I did both, but I never said anything of the sort.”
The dam burst, and Europe went mad for Shakespeare. Even so, it was mainly the stories, the characters and the drama of Shakespeare that inspired composers, not the poetry. Berlioz admits that when he first saw Hamlet, “I did not know a word of English.” But what does it matter? Operas don’t achieve immortality because their librettos are great literature.
Tickets will be available at the Victoria Hall box office before the performances, or at The Granada box office, 1214 State St. (805.899.2222).
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.