It takes a special sort of creative alchemy to transform great literature into great opera, and nobody did it better than Giuseppe Verdi.
The best example of that may be the dramas of Shakespeare. Of the hundreds of Shakespeare-based operas composed over the centuries, barely a handful have been truly successful. Verdi wrote three of them -- Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff.
But Verdi's affinity for great literature didn't stop there. He also wrote three operas based on works by the great German dramatist Friederich von Schiller. Those were I Masnadieri, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo. Two Verdi operas, Il Corsaro and I Due Foscari have their origins in the works of Lord Byron. Verdi turned to Voltaire for Alzira, to Alexandre Dumas for La Traviata and to a play by Victor Hugo for his popular tragedy Rigoletto. And a drama by Hugo was also at the root of one of Verdi's earliest hits, the romantic potboiler Ernani.
At the beginning of his career, Verdi became known for historical operas with thinly veiled political messages, appealing to Italian nationalism. Those dramas included Nabucco and I Lombardi, both of which had high-profile premieres at La Scala, in Milan. When Nabucco was also a triumph in Venice, Verdi was asked for a brand new opera for that city's main opera house, La Fenice.
While considering material for the new piece, the composer first looked at a couple of English sources, Shakespeare's King Lear and a story about Cromwell by Sir Walter Scott. Ultimately, Verdi settled on pure romance -- Hugo's play Hernani, the story of a single woman loved by three, very different men, all at each other's throats.
The drama gets so caught up in desperate passion and personal vendettas that, for the sake of honor, two of the men offer to have their own heads chopped off -- in the same act! It also turned out to be a near perfect vehicle for a confident young composer looking to let out all the emotional stops. The resulting opera took Venice by storm, and set Verdi off on one of the most successful careers in the history of opera.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Ernani from the Royal Opera of Wallonie in Liége, Belgium. The cast includes tenor Gustavo Porta in the title role, with soprano Elaine Alvarez as Elvira, the woman Ernani loves, in a production led by conductor Paolo Arrivabeni.