While these innovations were going on in the rest of Europe, the aforementioned Italian genius Giuseppe Verdi was creating his own Italian equivalent to Wagner’s ‘Music Drama’ in the definitive musicalizations of Shakespeare, Otello (based, obviously, on Othello) and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor). Interestingly, neither work sounds remotely like Wagner, or even seems to be directly influenced by him. Verdi simply created a parallel to what Wagner had done with German symphonic influences out of the very different and far more vocally oriented musical legacy of his native Italy.
Otello uses the same structure that Wagner used on Lohengrin and Meistersinger and that Claude-Michel Schonberg would use for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon…a kind of rough structural equivalent to Wagnerian Music Drama built out of Italian influences rather than German ones, but with a number of traditional operatic set pieces inserted into the overall tapestry of free-flowing arioso. Among these set pieces are the opening “Storm” sequence (one of the most exciting opening numbers in all of Opera), a meltingly tender nine-minute love duet for Otello and Desdemona, Iago’s “Credo” aria in which he lays out his nihilistic motivations (in what might be the definitive Musical-Theatre villain song of all time), two quietly heartbreaking deathbed solos for Desdemona, and of course, Otello’s anguished suicide aria after he discovers his wife was innocent all along.
Falstaff, on the other hand, has no discernable individual “numbers” until the ensemble fugue at the finale. There are streams of sublime melody flowing throughout the Opera’s score, and it featured some of the most intricate and complex music of Verdi’s career without ever becoming avant-garde or inaccessible, but its lack of “hit” tunes has led to it becoming significantly less popular than other Verdi Operas with more extractable arias. This is a genuine shame, given that in addition to its breathtaking music, it is very arguably the funniest Operatic comedy ever written (its only frequently-nominated competitor for that title being Puccini’s Gianni Schicci, a work so heavily influenced by Falstaff that the two are almost identical in style).
The Merry Wives of Windsor is actually an absurdly popular subject for musicalization, beating out even Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s most frequently adapted work in the realm of Musical Theater. Other versions include an Opera Buffa by Mozart’s famous supposed rival, Antonio Salieri (which is one of the Salieri compositions you’re most likely to actually see performed today), a mostly forgotten Bel Canto Opera by mostly forgotten Bel Canto composer Michael William Balfe, a moderately popular German Light Opera by Otto Nicolai, and two versions by quintessential English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst (the latter of which, At the Boar’s Head, is technically based on the bar scenes from Henry IV, but deals with several of the same characters, including Falstaff himself). There was even an off-Broadway musical version with delusions of someday transferring to Broadway called Lone Star Love, which reset the story in the American Old West. However, all of these works now live in the shadow of Verdi’s version, and their very existence seems rather redundant at this point (especially the ones written after Verdi’s Opera actually premiered).
A not inconsiderable amount of credit for these two Shakespeare adaptations goes to Arrigo Boito, widely considered to be perhaps the best Opera librettist of all time, who found a way to adapt Shakespeare’s text without losing the dramatic content or the beauty of the language (no easy task, given how notoriously difficult it is to translate Shakespeare’s poetry into romance languages like Italian). Boito had once been a composer as well as a librettist, writing both music and words for yet another adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, called Mefistofele. However, while the libretto was rather brilliant and certainly far closer to Goethe’s intentions that the Gounod version, the score was ultimately unsatisfying, so Boito was probably wise in deciding to transition into writing librettos for other, better composers.
One of Verdi’s would-be successors, Umberto Giordano, also had a decent success with this structural model in his Opera about the French revolution, Andrea Chenier. But apart from being an early example of semi-through-composed structure in an Italian opera, it comes off today as entirely too similar in subject matter and tone to Beethoven’s Fidelio. This is primarily because both are based on an overused and cliche-ridden genre model that started in the 1700s and lasted throughout the entire Nineteenth Century, generally referred to as “Rescue Opera”. But since Beethoven and Giordano’s Operas are pretty much the only examples of the “Rescue Opera” model to remain a major part of the modern Operatic repertory, Andrea Chenier inevitably comes across to today’s audiences as a Fidelio rip-off. Sadly, while it is a stirring piece with one of the most rewarding tenor roles of any still-popular Operatic title, it can only lose by the comparison: while it is much more neatly and tightly written than Beethoven’s opus (and certainly has a far better-written and more nuanced libretto), even its most stirring moments can’t compete with the transcendent ecstasy of Fidelio‘s music, simply because Giordano was no Beethoven.
Puccini would also start dabbling in this Italian variation on Wagner’s Music Drama model in the latter half of his career. He would write the awkward Western romance La Fanciulla del West in this period, a work whose interesting libretto and uneven but occasionally lovely score have never been able to overcome its main problem: it invariably plays as unintentionally hilarious on an actual stage.
Based on a Western-themed play about Gold Rush prospectors by the same playwright who wrote the source material for Madame Butterfly, it offers the spectacle of Opera singers in cowboy hats and full Western getup singing Italian lyrics set to very Italian-sounding music with virtually no Western sounds at all: and on the rare occasions that the score does try to sound setting-appropriate, it only manages to embarrass itself, as when it tries to echo “The Camptown Races” with a ‘Doo-Da-Dey” refrain. The Opera even features some stereotypical depictions of Native American customs that were embarrassingly cliched even when it was new and are downright uncomfortable now.
One could argue that Madame Butterfly might make a similar impression on a Japanese audience, but regardless of whether that statement is true or not, Butterfly was at least not originally intended to be marketed to a Japanese demographic. La Fanciulla, on the other hand, premiered at the Met before it was ever performed in Italy: Puccini clearly thought he was giving American audiences exactly what they wanted. Much has been made of “Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera supposedly cribbing a melodic fragment from Fanciulla’s most popular aria, but even if this is true, I think we can all agree that that Phantom was a better use of that melodic material than this perennially embarrassing work.
This is also the era when Puccini completed his most ambitious project: a trilogy of shows meant to be performed in a single evening, based on the structure and themes of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Il Tabarro (representing the Inferno) was a striking and impressive slice of gritty realism, but I’m not sure anyone actually wanted to see Puccini write an abrasive avant-garde piece like this. Suor Angelica (representing the Purgatorio) featured some notably beautiful and heartbreaking music, but its finale, which is either a heavenly miracle or a hallucination brought on by a mental breakdown, fails to satisfy as a dramatic climax. Unfortunately for Puccini’s vision, neither of those two remotely measure up to the third piece, Gianni Schicci (representing the Paradiso), which is Puccini’s only comedy and arguably the funniest Opera ever written, so that work is more often performed alone or paired with a one-act by a different composer. It’s worth noting that, for all its sophistication in structure and scene-painting, Gianni Schicci is a throwback to Puccini’s early style of simpler and more lyrical melody. Indeed, its only set piece aria is the simplest and most elemental in the Puccini canon, “O Mio Babbino Caro”.
For all the changes in his musical template, however, Puccini retained the Verismo naturalism that had made him famous until finally transitioning into a symbolic Wagnerian fantasy in his last work, Turandot (it has recently become a kind of dogmatic commandment to pronounce the final ‘T’ when uttering that title, but the fact that the Opera itself does not pronounce the final ‘T’, and indeed is written in places so that the singer essentially cannot pronounce it, kind of undercuts that position).
Moreso than any other late-career Puccini work, this is unmistakably an attempt at an Italian version of a Wagner Opera. From the sound of the music, to the mythical subject matter, to the free-flowing Music-Drama structure with only a few set arias, to the Grand Opera spectacle generally utilized in its staging, this work was unquestionably meant to correspond to the Wagner model. In particular, the ritualistic musical dialogue on which the plot hinges, with its exchange of obtusely abstract riddles and love and death as the stakes, could have come straight out of one of Wagner’s own librettos.
It was one of Puccini’s greatest achievements, producing one of the most famous melodies of all time in the tenor aria “Nessum Dorma”, and the only one of his more Wagnerian compositions to be a complete success. Unfortunately, however, he died before he could completely finish it, and no-one else has ever been able to compose an entirely satisfying ending for it despite at least two major attempts. This caused the final great legacy of classic Italian Opera to go out on an understandably frustrating note of uncertainty, but frankly, even Puccini might have had trouble executing his final vision for the piece. He wanted the cold, remote Princess Turandot to evolve into a fully developed human being, and while Puccini could certainly write human, he had little experience with these kinds of abstract symbolic characters, so one can easily see that transition coming off as less than convincing. Still, it is nonetheless a source of eternal frustration for music experts to know that this will always be one of Musical Theater’s great unanswered questions.