Shakespeare in Lilting English and in Song
Saw Much Ado About Nothing at the Folger Theatre on Thursday and it was loads of fun. The production has a specific “take”: it’s set at a Caribbean culture festival in modern-day Washington, DC and the cast is a wonderful stew of black, Hispanic, white, Asian, and everything under the sun. This gives the production a terrifically exuberant feel. Everything felt very colorful and fresh. And it was especially revealing to hear how well Shakespeare’s language lends itself so seamlessly to a Caribbean patois.
I bumped into a friend that night who is a famous Shakespeare scholar and he mentioned how, in his view, we always get a new perspective on Shakespeare when it’s translated into other languages. The native speakers of that language get to see Shakespeare in a different, sometimes more original light. Although this production was in English, with the text intact, the Caribbean setting evoked that same kind of feeling. One heard some of the familiar lines afresh.
So Thursday was Shakespeare in lilting English; and Friday was Shakespeare in song. I took the family to see Verdi’s Falstaff at The Washington Opera. The opera is based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, but has a bit of the Falstaff from Henry IV Part 1 thrown in – specifically the “honor” speech, which Verdi makes into an aria in his first scene. Verdi wrote the opera when he was in his late 70s, and it’s simply remarkable to think that anything with so much continuous invention, exuberance and non-stop energy could come out of the pen of someone who swore he was retired a few years before. What a way to go out.
It received an imaginative production from the Washington Opera.
The final set – with the huge oak tree in the middle – was gorgeous, and the Washington Opera Orchestra has never sounded more glorious. The premise of the production was that we were backstage, watching the preparations for a rehearsal of the opera: so that the singer playing the role of Falstaff was writing love letters to two of the other singers, the ones playing Meg and Alice. And that the singer playing Ford was actually married to the singer playing Alice, so he really was jealous of the singer playing Falstaff … you get the idea.
I find it invigorating that Shakespeare continues to be set in so many alternative worlds. Ian McKellan’s Richard III set in Nazi Germany. Branagh’s As You Like It set in feudal Japan. Even when I’m skeptical about the concept, I always hear something new in the text when I see these productions. And on Friday night there was an added bonus: I discovered a whole new instrument! In the pit, next to the trombones, was a “cimbasso.” It’s a kind of trombone-tuba hybrid that I have since learned was used by Verdi in many of his operas. I now want to run out and buy one and take lessons.