Re Lear

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Re Lear (King Lear) is an Italian operatic libretto in four acts written by Antonio Somma[1] for Giuseppe Verdi, based on King Lear, "the Shakespeare play with which Verdi struggled for so many years, but without success".[2]

The Re Lear project is widely considered illustrative of Verdi's complex and enduring fascination with Shakespeare. Verdi commissioned the libretto first from Salvadore Cammarano, who died in 1852 before he could complete it, noting in an 1850 letter:

At first sight, Lear is so broad, so intricated, that it seems impossible to get an opera out of it. However, after examining it carefully, it seems to me that the difficulties, while undoubtedly great, are not insuperable. You know that we need not turn Lear into a drama of the kind that has been customary up to now. We must treat it in a completely new fashion, broad, without any regard for convention."[3][4]

In his last letter to Cammarano, on 19 June 1852, Verdi wrote: "Cheer up, Cammarano, we have to make this Re Lear which will be our masterpiece" and a detailed sketch survives.

Following Cammarano's death, Antonio Somma, who was later to be instrumental in anonymously writing the original libretto of Gustavo III – which later became Un ballo in maschera – approached Verdi with other ideas. However, in his letter to Somma of 22 April 1853, Verdi laid out some of his reasons for disliking the subjects which Somma had proposed, noting his reservations about repeating subject areas which he had already tackled and observing that "I prefer Shakespeare to all dramatists, not excepting the Greeks". He asks the librettist to take a look at King Lear and asks him for his thoughts.[5]

In a further letter to Somma a month later (after having read the play again), Verdi details his concept of how the opera should be constructed. Specifically, he saw only Lear, Cordelia, the brothers Edgar and Edmund, and the Fool as principal characters while, as "Secondary roles: Goneril, Regan, Kent, etc. (and) the others, (would be) very subordinate roles".[6]

As documented by their extensive correspondence and with Verdi's overall detailed supervision, two completed and still extant versions of the libretto were prepared in 1853 and 1855.[7] Many of the subsequent letters from the composer (those of 29 June, 30 August, and 9 September 1853), as well as many others, continue into April 1856 and all constantly demonstrate Verdi's detailed oversight.[8]

Subsequent correspondence with Somma up to 1859 focuses primarily on the problems which Verdi was having with the censors on Un Ballo in Maschera. But the Re Lear project kept haunting Verdi to the end of his life. In 1896, he offered his Lear material to Pietro Mascagni who asked "Maestro, why didn't you put it into music?". According to Mascagni, "softly and slowly he replied 'the scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath scared me'".[9][10]



  1. ^ Antonio Somma biography on Retrieved 24 June 2013
  2. ^ Chusid, p. 3
  3. ^ Verdi to Cammarano, 28 February 1850.
  4. ^ Springer, p. ??
  5. ^ Verdi to Somma, 22 April 1853, in Werfel and Stefan, pp. 175/176.
  6. ^ Verdi to Somma, 22 May 1853, in Werfel and Stefan, p. 177.
  7. ^ Carrara Verdi, G. (ed.), Per il 'Re Lear'
  8. ^ Werfel and Stefan, pp. 178 to 190. No further letters from Verdi to Somma appear in this volume.
  9. ^ The Mascagni website (Italian)
  10. ^ G. A. Mendelsohn "Verdi the Man and Verdi the Dramatist (II)" in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 2, No. 3 (March 1979), pp. 214–230. (subscription required)


  • Carrara Verdi, G. (Ed.), Giuseppe Verdi – Antonio Somma, Per il 'Re Lear' , Parma, Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani, 2002
  • Chusid, Martin, Verdi's Middle Period 1849-1859: Source Studies, Analysis, and Performance Practice, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997. ISBN 0-226-10658-6
  • Schmidgall, Gary, "Verdi's King Lear Project", 19th-Century Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1985), pp. 83–101
  • Springer, Christian, "Re Lear - Shakespeare bei Verdi" in Verdi-Studien, 2005, Praesens Verlag ISBN 3-7069-0292-3.
  • Werfel, Franz and Stefan, Paul (Ed. & selected; trans. Edward Downes), Verdi: The Man and His Letters, New York: Vienna House, 1973 ISBN 0-8443-0088-8