Arts: In tune with the times

From bad history to great theatre to even better opera: Nick Kimberley on the legacy of Friedrich Schiller, the best librettist Verdi never had
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In his play, Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller invents a meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and her usurping sister Elizabeth I. As Mary enters, her eyes meet Elizabeth's. To convey the huge weight of the glance, Schiller demands a "general silence". When Donizetti's opera Maria Stuarda, derived from Schiller, reaches the same moment, the composer scores a brief silence... followed by an elaborate sextet. Schiller's "general silence" is filled with bel canto warblings.

This isn't a betrayal of the playwright, any more than Schiller's invention of the queenly meeting at Fotheringay "betrays" history. In musical terms, the gravity of the silence demands just such an ensemble, and the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is just the kind of volcanic confrontation that made Schiller's work so congenial to 19th-century opera composers, be it Rossini (William Tell), Tchaikovsky (The Maid of Orleans), Michael Balfe (Joan of Arc) or Lalo (Fiesque).

No composer displayed a greater affinity for Schiller than Verdi, who wrote four operas based directly on the playwright's work: Giovanna d'Arco, I Masnadieri, Luisa Miller and Don Carlos. In addition, Verdi lifted episodes from Wallensteins Lager for La Forza del Destino, while the musicologist Frits Noske has argued convincingly that Verdi's Macbeth derives as much from co-librettist Andrea Maffei's Italian translation of Schiller's German version of Shakespeare as from Shakespeare himself.

This month, the Royal Opera's Verdi Festival presents the composer's Schiller-based operas Don Carlos and Giovanna d'Arco, as well as readings in English of the original plays. Tim Albery (whose staging of Nabucco is also in the festival) has himself directed both Schiller's Wallenstein Trilogy and Mary Stuart, as well as Verdi's Don Carlos and Luisa Miller. In his view, "The confrontations in Schiller's plays are very direct - forehead to forehead. He writes in duets. That's great for opera, which needs that directness: Verdi's finest music is often his duets. That huge confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth plays like an opera, building and building to a great climax."

Schiller died in 1805, eight years before Verdi's birth: for Verdi, his plays were still fresh, not period pieces. The two artists' worlds were not, Albery suggests, very distant: "Schiller was writing when Germany was still divided into small princeling states, just as Verdi's Italy was divided. These were men of enormous ambition and talent, tackling the big themes: power and what you do with it; how easily your private desires corrupt your public behaviour. You could say that both were passionate realists; and, as Verdi didn't write his own librettos, he found someone who was thinking about the things he wanted to think about. It's as if he found a living librettist in Schiller."

Katharine Worth, Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of London, will be responsible for the readings of Schiller's Don Carlos and The Maid of Orleans. For her, what attracted Verdi to Schiller is what still attracts contemporary audiences: "He has a very humane, almost modern view of how difficult it is to maintain one's humanity in positions of power, of the awful choices people have to make between public good and private behaviour. Then there's his passion for liberty, which exerted a powerful attraction on Verdi, a feeling of liberal, rather romantic rebellion against tyranny, linked to his fascination with the complexities of character. Perhaps that's why his plays have to be so long: the extraordinary way in which Posa behaves in Don Carlos is very hard to grasp until the audience has got well into the play. He doesn't make his characters simply victims. But that's life, isn't it? And that's the realism we admire, both in Schiller and in Verdi."

Most commentators judge Don Carlos one of Verdi's finest achievements, whether in the five-act French original being performed at Covent Garden or in the composer's later four-act Italian revision (or even in the composite, so-called "Modena" version being given by the Royal Opera at this year's Proms). For Tim Albery, "The four-act version is in some ways a more successful dramaturgical structure than Schiller's, which is quite cumbersome and messy. It meanders, whereas the opera has to condense, and so makes the structure firmer, while keeping the essentials."

Philip Prowse, who directs the Royal Opera's new production of Giovanna d'Arco, disagrees: "I don't really think that Schiller is very operatic at all. Verdi's operas, including Don Carlos, take extremely complex situations and simplify them to the point where they cease to have the dramatic impact they have in the plays. All opera simplifies psychologically and dramatically, and then reinstates the psychology through the music. The libretto of Don Carlos abandons almost all of the internal politics in favour of who loves whom. Some of the threads are drawn together in the auto-da-fe scene, but I don't think Verdi really rises to it musically. The opera is long and complicated, but it isn't complex in the way that the play is."

Prowse has directed both Schiller's Don Carlos and Mary Stuart for the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. He acknowledges that the former "has an extremely knotty plot, some details of which I defy anyone to understand; yet audiences were gripped by the sheer force of the clashes between the personalities involved. That creates strong potential for musical development, although I actually think that Giovanna d'Arco works better in operatic terms than Don Carlos. It's not a distillation, it's a section of the play cleverly re- created in operatic form: and not at any great length, which is a good thing. The libretto absolutely does not reduce it to a love story. The problems Joan faces as an inspired woman in a man's world are well stated: in a 19th-century context, she's in a revolutionary situation. I don't want to make it sound like a feminist tract, because it isn't. Verdi couldn't have written any such thing. But, in the play and in the opera, Joan is a very original and dynamic figure."

Like Schiller's original, Verdi's opera denies Joan a death at the stake. Instead, she undergoes a strange apotheosis on the battlefield. This is not mere tinkering with history, Prowse believes: "The significance of that change is enormous. Schiller was writing a visionary play, and he wanted her history, not her political details. Burning her at the stake was disgusting, and to Schiller it was a macabre and irrelevant detail. As with the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Mary Stuart, he takes a non-historical event in order to demonstrate historical truths."

If these non-historical events now cause problems for some, they did not for Schiller's audiences, nor for Donizetti's and Verdi's. As Tim Albery says, "People assume that, because Schiller was a professor of history, he in some way wrote historical plays. But, like Shakespeare, he wasn't interested in history as what really happened, so much as in history as stories that he could use. He knew perfectly well that Mary never met Elizabeth, but he wanted the clash of ideologies which these two women represented, so he had them meet. He doctored history to suit himself, which is absolutely appropriate."

The relationship between Verdi and Schiller, the small (and not so small) changes in the transition from play to opera, are the stuff of scholarly dissertation. What is certain is that Schiller spoke clearly to Verdi in a language which the composer translated readily into music. Nearly 200 years after the playwright's death, public power and private misdemeanour intertwine as tightly as ever, and Verdi and Schiller are still our contemporaries.

n The Royal Opera's 1996 Verdi Festival opens with `Don Carlos' (five- act French version), 6pm tomorrow; `Giovanna d'Arco' opens 7.30pm 24 June. Play readings: `Don Carlos' 27 June; `Maid of Orleans' 4 July. All at ROH, Covent Garden, London WC2. Booking: 0171-304 4000

n `Don Carlos' (five-act Italian version) at the Proms: 6pm 20 July, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, and live on BBC Radio 3. Booking: 0171- 589 8212

n `Mary Stuart' is in rep at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 (0171-928 2252)