A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Better Than Shakespeare?

I told a friend recently that I had no interest in seeing the film Life of Pi because I admired the book so much. But tonight, watching a recording of the San Francisco Opera production of Otello, I realized it's possible to admire both an original and its copy in another medium. In fact, I'm not sure that I don't think Verdi's Otello is even better than Shakespeare's Othello. The SFO production is not ideal -- Johan Botha is neither physically nor vocally what one would want in the title role -- but even a flawed production brings back memories of less-flawed performances, such as Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo in the role, or of the old recording with Giovanni Martinelli as Otello and Ramon Vinay as Iago. And the score itself carries so much of the glory of the opera.

So is Verdi's (and Boito's) version really better than Shakespeare's? No, something is inevitably lost in translation: "Abbasso le spade!" is certainly not a patch on "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them," when it comes to beauty and wit. And Shakespeare's Desdemona has more depth of characterization than Boito's. But there is nothing in the play that has the impact of the great operatic scene in which Iago goads Otello into an oath of vengeance, especially when performed by two stellar singing actors like Piero Cappuccili and Domingo in this 1976 La Scala production: