Saturday, 23 April 2016

AUTHOR’S CHOICE: TOP 5 SHAKESPEARE-INSPIRED ARIAS, SONGS AND ORCHESTRAL MASTERPIECES

Scroll down to view my selections!

AUTHOR’S CHOICE!


As the literary and music world collectively commemorates the life of poet and playwright William Shakespeare, who left this earthly sphere 400 years ago today, unravelingmusicalmyths has selected for the reader 5 of the most beautiful and impacting arias and orchestral masterpieces inspired by the “Bard of Avon” from the world of classical music.[1]


 

I) “AVE MARIA” OTELLO – GIUSEPPE VERDI

 

This 4-act opera based on Shakespeare’s “Othello” would be Verdi’s penultimate work in this arena. The musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play would also be one of fellow composer Arigo Boito’s crowning achievements as librettist for the opera.

I have selected for this aria an early recording from a young Anna Netrebko. I far prefer a more mature Netrebko with a richer, fuller voice, but in this recording, her lighter vocal lustre somehow seems to work for Desdemona as she begins to pray to the Holy Mother a tender lament:




II) “HOW SWEET THE MOONLIGHT” – THE MERCHANT OF VENICE – JOCELYN POOK

 

This absolutely exquisite piece was composed by modern film composer Jocelyn Pook as part of an original score for the 2004 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice.”

Sung in English by famed countertenor Andreas Scholl, this tender Renaissance-inspired piece lifts directly from the Bard’s text (Act V, Scene I):
“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
become the touches of sweet harmony.”




III) “NINFE! ELFI! SILFI!... SUL FIL D'UN SOFFIO ETESIO” – FALSTAFF – GIUSEPPE VERDI

 

Another breath-taking aria from the master of the opera, 19th century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. This 3-act opera would be the composers last, written at the advanced age of 79 years. Falstaff would be Verdi’s second comic opera and third work to have been inspired by a Shakespeare play - the first being Macbeth, composed between 1846 -47 and Otello in 1884-85. Arigo Boito would again be cast as librettist for the work.

Verdi’s nominal protagonist for Falstaff would be based on William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and from scenes of Henry IV, pt. I & II.

I have chosen for this delectable aria the silvery toned Kathleen Battle (who, fyi, will be making a triumphant return to the MET for a "farewell recital" on the 13th of November following a 22-year hiatus from the famed theater after being unceremoniously fired by former general manager Joseph Volpe in february of 1994). To my taste, there exists no greater Nannetta than Ms. Battle, whose light and genteel hues present the perfect Queen of the "Nymphs, Elves, Pixies and Spirits" which make this playful aria one of Falstaff’s most beloved go-to scenes:




IV) “DANCE OF THE KNIGHTS” – ROMEO & JULIET - SERGEI PROKOFIEV

 

Who among us hasn’t heard the infamous “Dance of the Knights” from composer Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet (composed in 1935)?

This famous ‘scene’ and the ballet itself is adapted from the Bard of Avon’s famous tragic play Romeo & Juliet. Although the “Dance of the Knights” in particular exists today as somewhat of a cross-over favorite, appearing in many Hollywood films, independent documentaries and related media, Prokofiev’s initial attempts at seeking fame for the work were initially met with much hesitation on behalf of leading contemporary ballet companies – not the least of which was the Bolshoi Theater at Moscow, in which Prokofiev sought to premiere the work. The score was dismissed as too strenuous to conduct by theater officials, and as such, required a retooling by the composer, who was further made aware of critics at the theater who had also lambasted the ballet’s concluding act.

It would not be until after a not insubstantial re-write and a time span of some three decades later that the work would obtain prominence and go on to become an industry favorite.

Fun Fact: Today (April 23, 2016) marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev!



and for the last - but certainly not the least - entry in my list of most beloved Shakespeare-inspired pieces, I present to the reader:

 

V) “O, QUANTE VOLTE!” – I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI – VINCENZO BELLINI 

 

This entry is a bit of a stretch in that it is only loosely based on Shakespeare’s treatment of the Romeo and Juliet fable. I am including “O, Quante Volte!” (one of my all time favorite arias, for the record) on this list of Shakespeare-inspired works as Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani chose as the source for the opera the very same Renaissance treatment of the legend of Romeo and Juliet (which had existed for sometime in vast and varied formats) as selected by the Bard of Avon himself for his stage play adaptation of the tale in 1597.

Bellini’s opera also keeps intact several key ‘scenes’ from Shakespeare’s Romeo... including the famous “faked death” and “missed messages” scenes. It is of little doubt that Bellini would choose for his opera the shared origins of the legendary tale as adapted by the famous playwright because of the resounding success of Shakespeare’s treatment of the story. 

I present to the reader yet another early Netrebko, whose vocal lustre I actually prefer in this role. Note her exquisitely breathtaking crescendo and diminuendo at the words “Mi sembra un tuo respir” – absolutely gooseflesh inducing an aria as I have ever heard!



Footnotes:

[1] According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (published 1992), there exists some 400 stage-works to date - most of which are operas - that are based on the plays of Shakespeare, making the Bard of Avon truly one of the most inspirational figures in Western Classical Music. 

Suggested Reading:

 

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-Rose.

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