Whoever laughs last, laughs best—or, in the more elegant formulation by Arrigo Boito, author of Falstaff’s libretto: Ma ride ben chi ride / La risata finale. And in more than half a century of writing for the stage, Verdi has the last laugh with the ultimate joke: a fugue, that emblem of a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, academic, Teutonic sensibility, a virtual non-sequitur vis-à-vis the Italian operatic tradition he had inherited.
Yet the fugal capstone to Falstaff is a perfect and ingenious choice, theatrically and musically. After Sir John has been punked and had his drubbings, he’s the one who leads off the fugal chain reaction, as the entire ensemble joins to celebrate our shared humanity. Itamar Moses’ 2005 play Bach at Leipzig attempted to dramatize the fugue’s inherent theatricality—the way it wrests reconciliation from entanglement—but Verdi’s merry pranksters buoyantly sail free of any regrets, proving the power of his art to set the world right (at least for the illusory moments until the house lights come back on). Jester and jest become one. The rigorous form morphs into a bubbly champagne, ending with the orchestra’s zippy final chords. If Verdi alludes to the choral setting-things-straight culmination of Don Giovanni, he also seems to hint at the clear blue skies of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony—albeit his is a punch-drunk Jove.
They also say comedy is all in the timing. Verdi’s announcement that he was writing his final opera based on one of Shakespeare’s iconic comical figures must have seemed a thrilling surprise. But it also had an inevitability, and not only on account of his abiding love for the Bard. For decades Verdi had been on the lookout for material suitable material for a comic opera. He’d even briefly considered a Falstaff opera around the time of Aida, and a treatment of Molière’s Tartuffe was also mulled over. And Victor Hugo’s Shakespearean creed of mixing the high and the low, a major source of Verdi’s Romanticism, is echoed in the sparkling, though bitterly ironic, scenes of merry-making in such famous tragic operas as Rigoletto and La Traviata.
Verdi even anticipates aspects of Falstaff in the self-centered and curmudgeonly Fra Melitone amid the epic canvas of La Forza del Destino.
All the elements had somehow aligned perfectly by the summer of 1889, when Verdi, who was just shy of 77, praised Boito for his proposed scenario and decided to forge ahead “so that…what two days ago was in the world of dreams now takes shape and becomes reality.” Still, the miracle of the composer’s late-life return to the stage with Otello was still a fresh memory, its triumphant premiere having been given just two years before. Otello—thought by many Verdians today to be his greatest masterpiece—appeared to vindicate his reputation as Italy’s unsurpassed master of tragic opera.
Why, then, did Verdi choose to crown his career with a comedy? Opera buffa as a genre had died out and seemed buried with the past—and, anyway, this was exactly what Verdi was not known for. Was there something more to the choice of Falstaff than wanting to vindicate, at long last, the sting of the fiasco from his last attempt long ago at a truly comic opera (Un giorno di regno, in 1840, at the beginning of his career)?
According to LA Opera’s music director, James Conlon, “Because Verdi still felt the urge to create, his failure to have produced a great comedy should not be minimized and I think it did play a significant role in his motivation. As for what explains the unique inspiration in Falstaff, nobody could possibly have foreseen the results. Maybe not even Verdi himself.” The writer (and fellow composer) Boito also played a major part in winning him over to the idea. Otello had already proved how uniquely compatible the two were as creative partners. “There is only one way to end better than with Otello,” Boito argued, “and that is to end victoriously with Falstaff. Having made all the cries and lamentations of the human heart resound, to end with an immense outburst of cheer! That will astonish!”
Boito had already succeeded in luring Verdi out of what, for all the world, appeared to be his nonnegotiable retirement from the opera stage by producing a sophisticated but theatrically savvy adaptation of Othello. It wasn’t so much a repetition of that feat—the composer’s creative juices were obviously already flowing again—as a shift in perspective that Boito achieved by working out the scenario for a new comic libretto loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Working from what is by consensus a second-rate (at best) Shakespeare play—though a source for several operas, from a German Singspiel by Otto Nicolai (before Verdi) to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love—Boito crafted an economical libretto in six scenes. His ingenuity wasn’t so much in streamlining the original plot—the usual strategy for any libretto adaptation—as in his filling out (so to speak) the character of the fat knight.
Boito does this by including additional snapshots alluding to his speeches in the two Henry IV chronicle plays, where Shakespeare develops the fuller, more richly dimensional erstwhile pal of Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff— “the height of Shakespeare’s invention of the human,” as Harold Bloom rhapsodizes about the character. This more-rounded Falstaff (puns simply become unavoidable with this material, even in the lowly genre of the program essay) comes to the fore above all in his soliloquies about “honor” and after the prank that leaves him waterlogged from the Thames. While Falstaff overall is an ensemble opera, Sir John manages to dominate, his presence keenly felt even when he is offstage but being talked about. Regarding the timeless and archetypal nature of Shakespeare’s character, the poet W.H. Auden observed that his “true home is the world of music.”
Verdi became almost giddy with gratitude for being urged to compose again—and for receiving a vehicle to do so in such fresh ways. This is one of several fascinating paradoxes about Falstaff. It’s quintessential Verdi, incorporating myriad references to his own artistic past; and yet, far from repeating himself, the composer responds to the drama with a remarkably innovative attitude. This trait can still surprise opera lovers accustomed to the more obviously lyrical style of the blockbusters from earlier in his career. A prominent example of its novelty is the unusual (for Verdi) degree of integration of voices and orchestra, which some even describe as symphonic.
The very first music we hear is a riotous C major chord on the “off” beat, and the impetus keeps pressing forward. It’s as if there’s no time to dally with a prelude or overture—or, rather, Verdi mashes the expectation of an instrumental introduction with the stage action, and the characters themselves become “themes.” The whole business with the indignant Dr. Caius is interpreted by some commentators as a closet sonata form overture—which makes for a neat symmetry with Verdi’s dramatization of another instrumental form, the fugue, at the very end. This way of kicking off the action has an especially “modern” feel to it (compared with traditional Italian opera). Puccini certainly borrowed the tactic for La Bohème, and it’s a familiar device with composers in our own time.
Verdi both reinvents Shakespeare’s comedy and adds a new dimension by translating it to the medium of opera. His music shatters the illusion of the fourth wall, pulling aside the wizard’s curtain in clever parodies of opera as well as loving allusions to his predecessors. Falstaff pays tribute to a rich century of operatic tradition. It’s not just his own past that Verdi touches on throughout the score (which even includes references to his Requiem). There are nods to Figaro in both the zany ensembles and the attempted-seduction-by-night scene, to long-vanished opera buffa practice, honeyed bel canto melody, the colorful atmospherics of such early Romantics as Berlioz and Mendelssohn, and even to the high spirits of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (which had only recently been introduced, and with great success, to Italian stages).
A kind of self-conscious play-acting—which is after all what drives the plot—is highlighted musically as well. Verdi’s score continually draws attention to it through his radical stylistic gear shifts. When Alice reads her would-be suitor’s letter, she swoons to a gorgeous lyrical line that Verdi might have penned to satisfy a demanding prima donna at the height of his career. But the tune then serves to mock Falstaff’s ulterior motives before disintegrating into a collective cackle.
An especially wonderful example of this kind of in-joke parody of how easily we fall into (or for?) role playing occurs in Ford’s rage monologue. Verdi introduces the standard operatic theme of jealousy and control. But he dramatizes this as a complement to Falstaff’s id-centered lifestyle, and so it, too, gets spoofed. Ford’s outburst borrows from the rhetoric of high tragedy, even hinting at the implacable jealousy depicted in Otello, yet Verdi hedges all this by embedding it within a comic exchange.
What a cornucopia of humor is contained in Verdi’s score: You meet it in the protagonist’s delusions of grandeur or in Mistress Quickly’s ridiculously exaggerated courtliness as she repeatedly addresses Falstaff as “Reverenza” (“Your Grace”), making her flattery annoying. Or in the virtuoso rhythmic layering in the first-act finale, when the five men sing in one meter, the four women in another. The metrical dexterity here underlines the fact that the men are unaware of the women’s plot. Later, in the second-act finale, Verdi puts his own spin on those madcap scenes of “organized chaos” perfected by Rossini, whose remark decades earlier—that Verdi was incapable of doing comedy—had made him bristle.
Another characteristic of Falstaff is the brimming vitality and variety of Verdi’s word painting, his musical conjuring to illuminate what is sung and what happens onstage. Throughout the score, and above all in the final scene in Windsor Forest, writes the musicologist Emanuele Senici, “the practice of finding musical equivalents for textual images, common throughout Verdi’s career, turns in on itself when it responds literally to musical images present in the text.” By responding to Boito’s continual stream of verbal references to music—take the trill in Falstaff’s soliloquy in the last act or Fenton’s song-sonnet— “the subject of music has become music. Or, better, the subject of words and music in opera has become opera itself.”
If Falstaff emerges as one of the most memorable, colorfully realized characters in all opera, he has a counterpart in Verdi’s treatment of the orchestra. The latter could be said to become a character itself; never before had the composer lavished such care on the details and finesse of his instrumentation. And it’s not just a character, but a sly commentator that glosses every dimension of the text. Verdi’s untiring flow of ideas elicits much more than Boito’s “immense outburst of cheer.” His orchestra knows how to make us smile, wink, chortle and belly laugh. There’s even a panoply of “special effects”—listen for the high and low of piccolo and cello together tracing an “empty” outline when Falstaff imagines the non-Falstaff, thinned out by lack of access to his pleasures. The ghostly parody of this sonority almost looks ahead to Shostakovich.
Verdi’s ideas buzz past at a dizzying pace. However lightweight the comic action, his music drama demands full-on attention if it’s to be savored. A common misconception about Falstaff is that Verdi’s melodic gift was drying up. So where are those gorgeous, long-limbed arias? “The tunes are there,” explains Conlon, “and many of them are in the orchestra. It’s just that they go flying by at the speed of light. And they don’t repeat themselves, so it is hard for some who are hearing Falstaff for the first time to retain them. But they are there—charming, warm and lyrical—as they are in all of Verdi’s operas. This is one of the opera world’s most life-affirming works.”
This proliferating invention reinforces the wordplay of Shakespeare and Boito. At times it can almost seem as if Verdi is rushing against the clock, impatient to linger on a single idea when he has so much more to express. Julian Budden observes that Verdi’s music for the young lovers Nannetta and Fenton is particularly haunted by the sense of passing time. “In setting their lyrical encounters to a fast tempo,” he writes, “Verdi gives them a sense of transience, of moments of happiness snatched from ‘devouring time.’”
The old-school separation of distinct arias, duets, choruses and the like is broken down in the cauldron of Verdi’s imagination. We do get aspects of these formal ideas, but most often distilled into minimal events conveying a maximalist density of musical information—yet all exuding the feathery lightness of Verdi’s touch. This superabundant but fleeting diversity of detail has always been a particularly striking feature of Falstaff’s score. It’s also one way in which the Italian master strikes out on a path very different from the one Wagner had forged. The irony is that precisely in the historical context that produced Falstaff, Verdi’s innovative spirit was largely interpreted by his contemporaries as a desire to imitate Wagner—and, implicitly, as a repudiation of the grand Italian tradition and of his own past.
One of the advantages of this dual bicentennial year for Verdi and Wagner—in spite of the silly, pointless “debates” pitting one against the other and in spite of the legitimate comparisons of their revolutionary approaches to opera—is that closer focus has shed light on the independence of their respective legacies. Instead of comparing Verdi to Wagner, it makes more sense to marvel at how the comedy in Falstaff opened up unique new musical possibilities. “In the midst of an increasingly fragmented aesthetic world,” writes Roger Parker, “[Verdi] was able to follow the whim of the moment, to gaze back serenely on past achievements and…simply to enjoy himself.”
A writer and educator, Thomas May is a regular contributor to LA Opera’s programs. His books include Decoding Wagner and the John Adams Reader, and he blogs at memeteria.com.