Great moments in opera: Falstaff

April 6, 2014

Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, written six years after the triumph of Otello, when he was in his late 70s. The subject came as a surprise: it was, if I am not mistaken, Verdi’s first comedy. Although it has not been as popular with audiences as his great tragedies, it is generally considered to be a masterpiece on its own terms.

This opera is prodigiously inventive — indeed, it is almost too full of ideas, restless and fleet of foot as it leaps nimbly from one thing to the next. A beautiful musical line will come up, the sort of thing that in another opera would be lingered over and savoured, but here it makes its appearance and is dropped. The music dashes off to something else. The opera is also notable for the number of ensemble pieces it contains. Mozart, whose comedies had (and still do) set the standard to meet, had laid down an implicit challenge to later composers in his marvellous ensembles, especially the famous septet in Le Nozze di Figaro. Verdi accepts the challenge in Falstaff: there is at least one nonet, and also, if I remember rightly, an octet. They are a lot of fun, full of complicated rhythms banging up against one another.

Something which immediately strikes the listener, maybe especially the non-Italian-speaking listener, is how very wordy this opera is. It is not quite patter songs all the way through, but there is a lot of rapid dialogue, very few melismas, and the rhythms are brisk.

A big question about Falstaff is how faithful its central character is to Shakespeare’s original. Granted, it takes a kind of mad courage to even attempt to adapt this character, widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most miraculous creations, to another medium. If I tried it, I should surely fail. I am not convinced that Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, entirely succeeded either. The basic lineaments are there: Falstaff is a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, with a passion for life and adventure. But Falstaff the invincible comic spirit, the magnanimous heart, the man whom Chesterton described as “shaking with hilarity like a huge jelly, full of the broad farce of the London streets” — I am not sure that he makes an appearance in Verdi’s version. In the DVD performance I watched, I did not see him — this Falstaff was more of a buffoon, rather sadly fallen prey to his own follies — but I am not sure how much of that impression to attribute to the particular production I saw and how much to the opera itself. It’s a question that I leave open for now.

After that rather long preamble, let’s hear a few excerpts from the opera.

Although most of the music of Falstaff is jaunty and hasty and doesn’t try to ravish the listener’s ear, there are two characters, young lovers named Fenton and Nannetta, whose music is always lyrical and romantic. Whenever they open their mouths, and especially when they are together, it is as though we are transported into another world, or another opera (and Verdi has some fun with this later, as we’ll see). But, as with almost every musical idea Falstaff, even these lovely interludes don’t last long. Here are Fenton and Nanetta singing a duet called Bocca baciata non perde ventura; it is over in about 40 s.

The basic story of Act I is that Falstaff, who owes a large tab at the tavern and finds himself penniless, sends love letters to several local women with the hope of seducing them and getting their money. The trouble is that the women in question all know about his duplicity. In this section, which closes Act I, they — and their husbands — all swear to revenge themselves on Falstaff. This nonet is one of the big ensemble numbers of the opera. I apologize that the quality is not great; it goes on for about 2 minutes.

In Act II the women plan to trick Falstaff and they hatch a strategy. The action eventually results in Falstaff’s hiding in a laundry basket which is carried out and dumped into the river, much to Falstaff’s chagrin and everyone else’s amusement.

In the final act, Falstaff is tricked again in an elaborate scheme that involves dressing up as fairies and much besides; I confess I didn’t quite follow all the details. The action takes place outside the town, by an old oak tree, and before Falstaff and the others arrive we have a nice little scene with Fenton and Nannetta. Fenton arrives first, and sings a beautiful aria, as though he were in a bel canto romance and not a Verdian comedy. He sings Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola / (“From my lips, a song of ecstasy flies”), dilating at length on his love for Nannetta. When he finally sings “Lips that are kissed lose none of their allure,” Nannetta enters with a charming answer: “Indeed, they renew it, like the moon.” The two join in a ravishing duet that seems to be building to a glorious climax but — and this is a really nice comic moment — they are interrupted at the last moment by the entrance of another character. The interruption is so abrupt that it is as though the music falls off a cliff. Here it is (with Spanish subtitles, alas); the interruption occurs at 3:30 in this clip:

In the same act Nannetta has a ravishing solo aria, Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, which she sings in the guise of the Fairy Queen, calling the fairies to a dance. Here it is sung by an unnamed soprano, with English subtitles:

But Verdi saves his best for last: the most famous section of Falstaff is the finale, Tutto nel mundo (Everyone in the world). The composer has one final trick up his sleeve: a fugue! I do not know if there are fugues in any of Verdi’s other operas; right now I cannot think of one. In any case, it is a form that is not associated with Italian opera, to put it mildly, and the fact that Verdi reached for it in the final section of his last opera strikes me as quite remarkable. Is it a tribute to Bach, one master to another? Or merely a sparkling musical witticism? Here it is:

2 Responses to “Great moments in opera: Falstaff

  1. I saw Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago came away finding the opera weak: not so much, I suppose, because of the music but because it is based on one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, and I found it hard just to like the story. Dr. Johnson pointed out that the very plot device of having Falstaff fall in love was false to his character: ‘Falstaff could not love but by ceasing to be Falstaff. He could only counterfeit love, and his professions could be prompted, not by the hope of pleasure, but of money.’

    But perhaps the music is worth revisiting!

  2. cburrell Says:

    Well, when Dr. Johnson speaks I do best to stay quiet in the corner, listening. Naturally I agree with him, and wish I could have put it as well.

    It’s nice that you had the opportunity to see the opera staged. Based on my experience this time around, it is not one that I would rush out to see, but if the had the chance, and the tickets were not too expensive…

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