Look back in joy: Verdi’s “Falstaff”

Now that autumn is upon us, our thoughts turn inevitably to matters autumnal.

Now, that was a crap sentence, wasn’t it? I did consult the thesaurus for an alternative to “autumnal”, but nothing quite expressed what I wanted to express – autumnal, relating to autumn, approaching the end of the natural cycle, looking back upon the spring and summer of our lives and preparing for the chill on oncoming winter, and so on. Better inelegant than imprecise, I thought, so “autumnal” it remains.

We tend to see as special the works created by great artists in the autumnal phase of their careers. We note the valedictory quality, say, in the late works of Mozart, and the visionary quality of those of Beethoven, as if a full life to look back on had given them the fullest understanding of what that life meant, and a closeness to death mystical insights into what may lie beyond. In most cases, we are mistaken: Mozart died at only 35, after all, and Beethoven at 58, and it is doubtful whether either knew themselves to be in their autumnal phase. And this is not even to mention those great artists whose creativity had burnt out long before they had approached the autumns of their lives (Wordsworth is perhaps the most egregious example of this).

But sometimes, there are indeed cases where the artists know themselves to be in the autumn of their lives, and produce works to which, for want of a vocabulary adequate to the purpose, we apply such vague terms as “mystical” or “spiritual”; or they look back upon the life that they know they must shortly leave, and produce works that are a sort of summing up.

One such work is Verdi’s opera Falstaff, a piece that has recently been much on my mind and on my CD player. Premiered in 1893, it was, Verdi must have known, finally and most definitely his last work. True, he had announced his retirement before on several occasions, and had made more comebacks even than Frank Sinatra, but Verdi was in his eightieth year by the time of Falstaff’s premiere: no more encores – this was the final final curtain.

The story of how the aged Verdi came in touch with the brilliant young poet Arrigo Boito (and who was no mean composer himself); how Verdi’s initial caginess gave way to admiration, and, eventually, to love; and how the two collaborated on the two great crowning glories of Verdi’s career, the Shakespearean operas Otello and Falstaff; is too well-known for me to relate. (Although that didn’t stop me relating just that in an earlier post.) When they started work on Otello, the story that Verdi was coming out of retirement to compose a new opera, and one that based on an undisputedly great play by Verdi’s idol Shakespeare, was, in Italy, national news. The opera was a triumph – taking Shakespeare’s play as a starting point for something startlingly new, and matching, to my mind, the greatness of its inspiration.

Verdi was then 73. Surely, now, it was time to retire. But no Boito had other ideas. Verdi had, after all, never written a comic opera. His very first opera, yes, but that was decades ago, it had flopped, and, despite the celebrity status Verdi had attained since, it had never even been revived. No, that doesn’t count. Even Wagner had written a great comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: do we really want posterity to say that Wagner had composed a great comic work, and that Verdi hadn’t? Or, worse, couldn’t?

I personally think that it was only when Verdi saw the quality of the libretto Boito was producing that he fully committed himself to the project. The main plot was taken from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with (inevitably given this was opera rather than a straight drama) many of the plot complications ironed out; but it was enriched with passages derived from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, and also with elements from Boito’s and Verdi’s own native Italian culture (for instance, the solo Fenton sings in the final scene, with the final line completed by Nanetta, is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet). Add to all that Boito’s own genius. Libretti are, traditionally, not meant to be anything much more than something for the composer to work on, but such was the delight Boito took in his own language, and such was his skill in making that language obey his call (a skill that I, a non-Italian speaker, can appreciate only second hand when I read analyses of it), that the libretto, even without the music, is utterly exquisite. Verdi knew that if the work was to be known as a Verdi-Boito collaboration rather than a masterpiece by Boito with some music by Verdi, he would, tired and aged as he was, have to be at his very best. It was a challenge he was glad to take up. Before he met with Boito, Verdi was constantly giving his librettists detailed instructions on how he wanted to libretto to go, even down to details as to what the rhythms should be, what words were to be used, and so on: and now, in his old age, he found himself working with libretti that were works of art in their own right.

Unlike Othello, the previous Shakespeare play Verdi and Boito had tackled, The Merry Wives of Windsor isn’t usually regarded amongst Shakespeare’s finest plays. Many even find it rather disappointing. Shakespeare had taken Falstaff, one of his greatest creations, from the Henry IV plays, and had stripped from him everything that had made him so memorable: here, he is nothing more than a comic buffoon. The plot, such as it is, is no more than a rumbustious situation comedy – at times, a farce. All this is true enough, but it seems to me that if we stop expecting it to be something it never set out to be, and accept it as the riotous farce it is, it is all very enjoyable. Boito added depth to the text partly by additions from other sources (mainly the Henry IV plays), and partly by his own linguistic exuberance. And Verdi, of course, set it to music. And what music!

And yet, Falstaff occupies a rather uneasy position within the Verdi canon. There are many otherwise dedicated Verdians who love Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, who find themselves transfixed by Simon Boccanegra or by Don Carlos, but who, often by their own admission, don’t quite “get” Falstaff. Some go as far as to say they dislike it. And, conversely, there are also those who generally disparage Verdi, but who hold up the two operas he created with Boito (along with, sometimes, the Requiem Mass) as works where, unlike the inferior stuff he had produced earlier, Verdi really did achieve great heights. (This latter group sometimes rubs it in by claiming that these late works of Verdi achieve heights that the earlier works hadn’t because Verdi had, by that stage, learnt from Wagner.) Needless to say, I don’t accept either position. But it is true to say, I think, that these last two operas do indeed stand apart somewhat from Verdi’s earlier work, and not merely by virtue of having superior libretti.

To try to understand why Falstaff often fails to capture the hearts and minds of so many fans of Verdi, I think back to when I first heard this opera – nearly forty years ago now – and, largely innocent of musical sophistication, found myself confused. Where are the tunes? I wondered. No sooner does any semblance of a tune get started, it disappears. Where is the continuity? In the second act, the two young lovers, Fenton and Nanetta, sing a gorgeous love song, but, goddammit Giuseppe, why don’t we get to hear this properly? Why overlay this lovely romantic song with a whole lot of other tuneless voices going about their allegedly comic business?

Something such as Aida, say, with its spectacles and its glorious array of tunes, I could hear through and enjoy, but this took some time. It was some time before I realised that the fast, mercurial nature of the piece – each little wisp of a tune giving way to the next one before it is allowed time to settle – is the essence of the whole thing. It is almost as if Verdi had so many musical ideas teeming inside his head, he had to get them all out in this single work which, whatever ideas Boito may have for even further collaboration, would be, finally and definitely, his last. And as for that gorgeous romantic tune of the young lovers getting overlaid with the allegedly comic business, it is that overlaying itself that is funny. All that used to frustrate me now makes me smile. And laugh.

And that orchestra! In Luisa Miller or Il Trovatore – great works both: don’t listen to what the anti-Verdi camp tells you! – the orchestra was there primarily to support the singers. Here, the orchestral writing is far more sophisticated: the colour of the orchestral sound is constantly changing, from moment to moment, commenting on the action, counterpointing the singers with their own little scraps of melody that disappear almost as soon as they’re heard, forever giving way to new musical ideas; and it laughs and chatters away, constantly delighting the ear with its vitality and energy and wit, and its seemingly infinite variety and invention.

In case you haven’t got the idea yet, I love this opera. It is very dear to me. Every time I hear it, or every time that music plays in my inner ear, I find a smile spreading across my face. For, from this opera, all darkness is banished. It is reasonable to wonder, I think, to what extent a comic work can afford to banish the darkness in our lives, and claim still to depict our lives truthfully. I think the answer is that no single work of art, no matter how profound or how wide its scope, could hope to address all aspects of our existence, and that it is perfectly legitimate, therefore, to focus on the joys of living rather than on the sorrows. It is not, after all, that Verdi has not known the sorrows: his own life had certainly not been free from grief and personal tragedy. In his past works, he has expressed, sometimes with a searing intensity, the pain of loss, of parting, of loneliness. Indeed, the anguish expressed in his previous opera, Otello, is so searing that often it is difficult to listen to. Verdi knew about all that. But that kind of thing is not his focus here.

There is, though, one point where the music comes close to the tragic. Ford wrongly suspects his wife of infidelity, and is given a monologue that comes dangerously close to Otello territory. Of course, the jealousy is unfounded, but the jealousy in Otello, too was unfounded. Verdi could easily have presented this scene ironically, but he doesn’t: he allows us to feel Ford’s torment. The only reason it doesn’t unbalance the work is that this passage is placed in the context of comedy, and we know, therefore, that there cannot be to this drama an Otello-like ending. But Ford’s torment is real enough, and Verdi knows better than to mock it: he gives it its full weight. However, at the end of Ford’s monologue, something wonderful happens: Falstaff, on his way (as he thinks) to an assignment with Ford’s wife, enters wearing his gladrags, and the orchestra, that had been as grave and as solemn as it had ever been in any of Verdi’s earlier operas, bursts all of sudden into the broadest of grins. The tragic potential is not dismissed: it is, instead, placed into a comic context – a context that reminds us just how damn silly we all are, really. As the ensemble at the very end of the work (composed in the form of that most academic of musical forms – a fugue) reminds us, “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – the whole world’s a joke! Best not take ourselves too seriously.

For me, Falstaff ranks with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the greatest of all comic operas. Or even, perhaps, insofar as the concept of “greatest” is at all meaningful in this context, the greatest of all operas. Some might suggest Rossini – Il Barbiere di Siviglia, say; or Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. I’m not really much in sympathy with either, but far be it from me to rain – as the toned-down version has it – on anyone’s parade. Let’s just say they’re not really my thing, and leave it there. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is also a strong contender, but, for all its glories, it does have its longueurs. For me, when it comes to comic opera, it’s Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Verdi’s Falstaff that rule supreme.

Mozart’s opera takes us to a feudal estate, where the Count, though not a bad man, has been corrupted by the power he wields; and he uses that power tyrannically, subduing both his servants, and also his wife. Not, perhaps, the most obvious scenario for comedy, but there’s comic business a -plenty; and it all ends with a glimpse of Heaven. Not the Heaven promised us in the other world – comedy isn’t generally very interested in the other world – but in this one, proceeding as it does not from divine forgiveness, but from human.

In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Hans Sachs, middle-aged, a widower, and lonely, comes to the understanding that it Is not for him to stand in the way of youth, and that he must renounce his own desires to ease their way. It is not an easy understanding to come to terms with: indeed, it is painful; but in this wisdom, painful though it may be, lies joy.

Falstaff is the only one of these three composed in the autumnal years of the composer’s life, and yes, it is a sort of “summing up”: Verdi here is looking back on life. But he looks back with no hint of anger or of bitterness, no angst, nor even sorrow or regret: rather than look back on spring and summer through melancholy autumnal mists, he re-creates, with a quite miraculous immediacy, the youthful exuberance of spring, the joy of summer. The next world? Pah! No time for that sort of thing here. There’s enough to delight in in this world. And Verdi expresses his delight in this world, in this life, and his gratitude for having been allowed to be part of it, without the slightest hint of sanctimony or of false piety. Falstaff is the least autumnal of all autumnal works.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, this is the best analysis of Falstaff (and comic opera too, as a corollary) that I have read. You put your finger exactly on why Falstaff works so well as a comic opera, and also why it may not appeal to those who are smitten by other Verdi works. I went to see Falstaff at a young age (for all I know, Verdi was in the audience!) and enjoyed it on stage, but it was years before I grew to enjoy listening to it from a purely musical point of view.

    I often make the point that “comic opera isn’t funny” – meaning that anyone expecting a bellyful of laughs is likely to be disappointed. The two operas you use as a comparison – Figaro and Meistersinger – are wonderful works. But can anyone really claim that the story of Figaro, relying on improbable situations with masks and people discovering long-lost relations at the drop of a hat, will amuse people brought up on Fawlty Towers and Blackadder? There are some amusing situations certainly, and Da Ponte’s libretto is a masterpiece, but it’s the music we remember. Porgi Amor, Dove sono, Deh vieni and the lovely Canzonetta (the Shawshank bit!) are probably the highlights, and one has to be a psychopath not to shed a tear when listening to at least one of the – hardly a recipe for a laugh riot!

    As for Meistersinger, it contains some of Wagner’s most wonderful music, but the “funny” bits – such as Beckmesser’s lute song – become tiresome on repeated hearings. You mention Rosenkavalier and too right it has its longueurs. I also find the hypocrisy of the Marschallin quite off-putting – she’s just as happy to sleep around as the boorish Ochs, only she does it in an arch, oh-so-sophisticated way that I find rather nauseating. Very much a highlights opera and I very seldom say that.

    The exception of course is Falstaff. It IS funny, and also musically perfect. Verdi used conciseness and wit to incredible effect – unlike me in this post!

    Reply

    • Hello Neil good to hear from you!
      I really just wanted to write about “Falstaff” simply because I love the work so much. I’ve seen it live only once – some 30 years ago now, with the Welsh National Opera, with Richard Armstrong conducting, and Donald Maxwell as Falstaff. (As I remember, Suzanne Murphy and Nuccia Focile were, respectively, Alice and Nanetta.) It was absolute perfection. Of course, the best way to get to know this work (for musical illiterates such as myself who can’t read a score) is to listen to recordings, and there is no shortage of great recordings of this one.

      The Mozart-da Ponte operas mean a lot to us (i.e. to myself and my wife) at a personal level. The first birthday present I ever gave my wife (back in the days before we were married) was a recording of “Le Nozze di Figaro”, and we have been to see that opera at important points in our lives. We can hardly think of this work (or of “Don Giovanni”, or “Cosi fan Tutte”) in objective terms!

      (We have tickets for “Cosi Fan Tutte” this coming November, when the Glyndebourne Touring Opera comes to Woking. It was “Don Giovanni” last year…)

      “Comedy” is often thought of – not unreasonably – as things that make us laugh – “Fawlty Towers”, “Monty Python”, etc. (Just as “tragedy” is regarded as a play or a film or whatever where everyone dies at the end.) By this criterion, I don’t know that too many operas would pass as “comic”: even “Falstaff”, which, as you say, genuinely is funny, doesn’t have as many belly-laughs as “Fawlty Towers”. But I think I’d argue for a broader definition of comedy: “comedy” focuses on the joys of life, and on all that makes life worth living. This doesn’t mean that there’s no room in comedy for the darker elements of our lives: indeed, if we think of “black comedy” (something like “Catch 22” say) the focus is very much on the darkness. There are other comedies (and I’d include both “Figaro” and “Die Meistersinger” amongst these) that acknowledge the darkness, but nonetheless, it’s the joys of life that are insisted upon. “Tragedy”, on the other hand, presents life as, ultimately, a defeat, and tries to see if there’s anything that may be salvaged from the wreckage. The difference seems to me a difference of emphasis, and the two – comedy and tragedy – can often occupy the same space.

      I think I agree with you that “Der Rosenkavalier” is a “highlights opera”. the highlights are gorgeous, but with Act 3 especially, it’s generally a case of “wake me up before the trio”. “Salome” and “Elektra”, however, are just fabulous. I enjoy “Ariadne auf Naxos” too, but “Die Frau Ohne Schatten”, although very beautiful, has a plot that makes “Il Trovatore” seem sensible. I honestly have not the foggiest what that’s about!

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Thanks for your reply, Himadri. I have sometimes heard comic opera defined as “an opera in which nobody dies” – probably not meant entirely seriously but it’s as good a description as any!

    How lovely to have a personal investment in Figaro as well as the obvious musical interest! I can’t claim such an involvement but it’s still one of my favourite operas.

    I agree that Act 3 of Rosenkavalier is a case for setting the alarm clock. Die Frau is my favourite Strauss opera, though I’ve never made head nor tail of the story either. Unborn children singing from a pan of frying fish – I ask you!

    I remember the WNO Falstaff. I never saw it live but they broadcast it on TV. It was excellent and I think they made a video of it though it has long been unavailable, as far as I know.

    One opera I think really is hilarious is Julietta by Bohuslav Martinu (and it has some lovely music too). Based on the surrealism of dreams, the libretto is Pythonesque in its absurdity and really is a LOL opera. There’s an old but very decent recording on Supraphon.

    It was partly my fascination with Julietta that inspired me to learn Czech and ultimately move to Prague. It’s in the current repertoire of the Prague National Theatre – but as it’s responsible for me pitching up here, I’m surprised the Czechs want anything to do with it!

    Reply

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