Boyd Tonkin

Where should this music be?

There’s never been a faithful, fully rounded Shakespeare opera but that doesn’t stop people trying

This must rank as the most heartbreaking example of premature chicken-counting in musical history. ‘Gotter has made a marvellous free adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,’ wrote poet Gottfried Bürger to the translator A.W. Schlegel on 31 October 1791. ‘Mozart is composing the piece.’ Three days later, brimming with misplaced confidence, the dramatist Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter confirmed that ‘the edifice is all ready to receive Mozart’s heavenly choruses’.

By 5 December 1791, Mozart was dead. Most probably, he never saw Gotter’s Tempest adaptation, although the musicologist Alfred Einstein stirred the pot of Mozartian myth by presuming that the master had set to work on it during his dying days. So the second most famous phantom opera drawn from the plays of Shakespeare evaporated into fantasy before it had even begun.

As for the best-known unbuilt blueprint, it has a more tangible history. Over a quarter-century, Verdi’s long-planned, never-executed opera of King Lear went through two librettists (Salvadore Cammarano and Antonio Somma), a handful of false starts, a posse of disappointed opera-house managers (starting with Benjamin Lumley in London in 1846) and numberless dark nights of the composer’s soul. Eventually, Verdi gave up on the storm-battered king and instead conquered the scarcely less formidable peaks of Otello and Falstaff. You might argue that Lear’s bond with Cordelia, which obsessed Verdi, also colours the great music for the jester and his daughter Gilda in Rigoletto.

These twin might-have-beens, their heavenly harmonies forever drifting just out of earshot, epitomise the lure of perfect Shakespearean opera. In this anniversary year, directors and programmers have rammed their seasons full of musical Shakespeareana. The 2016 Proms alone offer a dozen Bard-based concerts, from crowd-pleasing staples such as Mendelssohn’s skittering soundtrack to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a brace of lesser-spotted takes on Lear itself: Berlioz’s concert overture, and Debussy’s fragments of incidental music.

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