Music by Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by Arrigo Boito

Bryn Terfel, the "definitive" Falstaff of our day (Chicago Tribune), returns to San Francisco Opera in one of his truly legendary roles. Based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Verdi's last opera is a wise, wistful comedy about a self-deluded old man who vainly attempts to seduce two women at once. "Terfel is so irascible, nimble on his feet and altogether charming that he almost makes you forget how splendidly he sings the music" (The New York Times). Music Director Nicola Luisotti leads a cast that also features Ainhoa Arteta, the "vocally alluring" Roxane of San Francisco Opera’s Cyrano de Bergerac (2010) (San Francisco Chronicle); the "impressive" Meredith Arwady (The New York Times); Fabio Capitanucci, renowned for his "robust, warm voice and impressive Italianate lyricism" (The New York Times); the "wonderfully lyrical" Francesco Demuro (MusicalCriticism.com); and Heidi Stober, who brought "lustrous tone, technical precision and saucy humor" to her roles in San Francisco Opera’s Xerxes (2011) and The Magic Flute (2012) (San Francisco Chronicle).

Fromm Class: A Verdi Celebration by Professor Keolker
Tuesdays, Sep 9–Oct 31: Celebrate the Verdi bicentennial with a thematic survey of this beloved composer's most important works through libretto extracts, a discussion of Verdi's life and times and musical examples.

Humanities West Class: Verdi's Masterwork: Opera and the Birth of Modern Italy
November 1–2: During this seminar, learn how Verdi became the leading artist of Italy's resurgent movement, the "Risorgimento," and how it affected his life and art.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

This production of Falstaff is owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and is made possible by a generous and deeply appreciated gift from Abbott Laboratories.

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio excerpts are from the September 13, 1989 performance of Falstaff with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Kazimierz Kord.


Falstaff Bryn Terfel
Alice Ford Ainhoa Arteta
Nannetta Heidi Stober
Nannetta Lisette Oropesa Oct 15
Dame Quickly Meredith Arwady
Fenton Francesco Demuro
Ford Fabio Capitanucci *
Meg Page Renée Rapier
Bardolfo Greg Fedderly
Dr. Caius Joel Sorensen
Pistola Andrea Silvestrelli

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Director Olivier Tambosi
Production Designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann
Lighting Designer Christine Binder
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Fight Director Dave Maier

* San Francisco Opera Debut


Sir John Falstaff, the portly rascal of Windsor, sits in the Garter Inn with his "bad companions" Bardolfo and Pistola. When Dr. Caius enters to accuse the three of abusing his home and robbing him, Falstaff dismisses the charges with mock solemnity. He then upbraids his friends for being unable to pay the bill. Seeking to better his fortunes, Falstaff plans to woo wealthy matrons Alice Ford and Meg Page. He produces love letters to both, but his henchmen decide their ethics forbid them to deliver the notes. Falstaff gives them to a page boy instead and lectures his cronies on honor, as he chases them from the inn.

In her garden, Alice and her daughter, Nannetta, talk to Meg and Dame Quickly, soon discovering that Falstaff has sent identical letters. Outraged, they resolve to punish him, then withdraw as Ford arrives with Caius, Fenton, Bardolfo and Pistola, all warning him about Falstaff's designs. Briefly alone, Nannetta and Fenton steal kisses until the women return, plotting to send Quickly to Falstaff to arrange a rendezvous with Alice. Next Nannetta and Fenton are interrupted by Ford, who also plans to visit Falstaff. As the women reappear, all pledge to take the fat knight down a peg or two.

At the inn, Falstaff accepts Bardolfo and Pistola's feigned penitence for their mutiny. Soon Quickly curtseys in to assure the knight that both Alice and Meg return his ardor. Arranging a meeting with Alice, Falstaff rewards Quickly with a pittance and then, alone, preens himself. The next visitor is Ford, disguised as "Master Brook" and pretending an unrequited passion for Alice. Employed to break down the lady's virtue, Falstaff boasts that he already has set up a tryst and steps out to array himself. Ford, unable to believe his ears, vows to avenge his honor. Regaining his composure when Falstaff returns, he leaves arm in arm with the fat knight.

In Ford's house, Quickly tells Alice and Meg about her visit with the knight at the inn. Nannetta does not share in the fun: her father has promised her to Caius. The women reassure her before hiding, except for Alice, who sits strumming a lute as her fat suitor arrives. Recalling his salad days as a slender page, he is cut short when Quickly announces Meg's imminent approach. Falstaff leaps behind a screen, and Meg sails in to report that Ford is on his way over in a fury. Quickly confirms this, and while Ford and his men search the house, Falstaff takes refuge amid the dirty linen in a laundry basket. Slipping behind a screen, Nannetta and Fenton attract attention with the sound of their kissing. While Meg and Quickly muffle Falstaff's cries for air, Ford sneaks up on the screen, knocks it over and pauses briefly to berate the lovers as the chase continues upstairs. Alice orders servants to heave the basket into the Thames then leads her husband to the window to see Falstaff dumped into the muddy river.

At sunset outside the inn, Falstaff bemoans his misadventure while downing a mug of warm wine. His reflections are halted by Quickly, who insists that Alice still loves him and proves it with a note appointing a midnight rendezvous in Windsor Park. Alice, Ford, Meg, Caius and Fenton sneak in as Falstaff enters the inn with Quickly, who tells him the gory tale of the Black Huntsman's ghost, often seen in Windsor Park at midnight. Alice and the others take up the story, plotting to frighten Falstaff by dressing up as wood sprites.

In moonlit Windsor Forest, Fenton sings of love and receives a monk's costume for the masquerade; Nannetta is queen of the fairies, Meg a nymph and Quickly a witch. Everyone takes off as Falstaff lumbers in, got up as a huntsman and wearing antlers. Scarcely has he greeted Alice than Meg warns of approaching demons. As the knight cowers, Nannetta calls the forest creatures to their revels. They torment Falstaff until he begs for mercy. When the conspirators unmask, Sir John takes it like a sport. Ford betroths Caius to the queen of the fairies (now Bardolfo in disguise) and unwittingly blesses Nannetta and Fenton. Ford too has been duped, but he can forgive as well, and Falstaff leads the company in declaring the world is but a jest.

Giuseppe Verdi and Falstaff

Philip Gossett

When Verdi’s Macbeth was first performed in Paris in 1865 in a version specifically revised for performance in the French capital—with an added ballet and with many modifications—the reaction of the French public was not enthusiastic.

Download a PDF of this article here

Indeed, it was the original 1847 version that continued to circulate during most of the nineteenth century. Not until German revivals of the opera during the 1920s did it develop an audience. Verdi was not present for the premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, and there was clearly much about it of which he did not approve: the directors of the theater had manipulated the opera in various ways that did not please the composer. (They assigned one strophe of Lady Macbeth’s “Brindisi,” for example, to Macduff, in order to enrich the part of the tenor, a change Verdi had refused to accept.

As always, Verdi’s French editor, Léon Escudier, sent the composer reviews from the first performances so Verdi could see for himself that the enthusiastic telegrams sent from Paris were less than truthful. But what stung most were not the criticisms of one piece or another, or the general dislike of the libretto, or those who found the subject “not appropriate for music.” No, what really disturbed Verdi comes out in a letter to Escudier. “Some claim that I didn’t know Shakespeare when I wrote Macbeth. Oh, in this they are very wrong. It may be that I have not rendered Macbeth well, but that I don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t feel Shakespeare—no, by God, no. He is a favorite poet of mine, whom I have had in my hands from earliest youth, and whom I read and reread constantly.”

Certainly, from very early in Verdi’s career during the 1840s, there are many indications that he wanted to set numerous texts by Shakespeare. Among his copybooks for letters there is a sheet that probably dates from 1849, after the composition of Macbeth in 1847 but before the composition of Rigoletto in 1850, in which he sets out several possible subjects for operas. The top three on the list are: King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest, followed immediately by a Byron text, Caino, and Le Roi s’amuse of Victor Hugo (which would become Rigoletto).

Of course, in one sense the critics of the period were correct. For a poet as complex as Shakespeare the musical language of the first half of the nineteenth century was not really adequate. There are wonderful things in Rossini’s Otello of 1816 (which is based, in any event, on a French eighteenth-century translation, far from the original Shakespearean text), in I Capuleti e i Montechi of Bellini (which, in any event, has very little to do with Shakespeare), and Verdi’s Macbeth of 1847 and 1865, but the language of the period did not permit the authors to enter fully into the thoughts of the English writer. Rather, their aim was to transform the drama into a series of closed numbers, arias, duets, etc., of the kind that Verdi was writing and the public expected in 1847.

In June 1891, after months of inactivity on the opera he called, with affection “Il Pancione” [the “Big Stomach”], Verdi wrote to his librettist Boito: “The Big Stomach is on the road that leads to madness. There are days when he doesn’t move, sleeps, and is ill-humored; at other times he shouts, runs, jumps, plays the devil... I let him go his own way, but if he continues like this I’ll put him in a muzzle and a strait-jacket.” To which Boito responded at once, with that subtle understanding of the old maestro that gave Verdi the courage to undertake his last operas: “Evviva! Let him do it, let him run, he’ll break all the windows and all the furniture of his room, but it doesn’t matter, you’ll be able to buy others; he’ll knock your piano to pieces, but it doesn’t matter, you’ll buy another one. Let everything be in a state of absolute confusion! But the great scene will be done! Go! Go! Go! Go! What pandemonium!!! But a pandemonium clear as the sun and dizzying as a madhouse.”

These are words that characterize with great intelligence the art of Verdi’s last opera. And to this pandemonium and this clarity Boito contributed a libretto that is extraordinary in every way. Verdi himself said that, just reading the text, he laughed aloud. And then he knew how to find a way to render in music Boito’s thoughts. There is a beautiful example in the final scene, when Alice, Meg, and Quickly together pray over the poor Falstaff, who has been attacked by the “fairies”: “Domine fallo casto! Domine fallo guasto! Fallo punito Domine! Fallo pentito Domine!” [God, make him chaste! God, make him broken! Punish him, God! Make him repentant, God!” To each phrase, the fat Falstaff, still stretched out on the ground, responds “Ma salvagli l’addomine” [But save his belly], playing in this way with the relationship between the Italian words “Domine” [God] and “addomine” [belly]. In the music, Verdi translates this with a phrase that derives from the “Hostias” melody in the Offertory of his Requiem Mass. In Falstaff, Verdi sets the dialogue four times, always with the same melody, but with changing harmonies. The composer plays harmonic games of this kind on almost every page of his score. They never, absolutely never, interrupt the clarity and meaning of a passage, but they create surprising, original, pleasurable effects within that clarity.

Other words and phrases of Boito set off other thought processes, and sometimes evoked particular memories. When Quickly brings Falstaff the responses to his letters to Alice and Meg, was it Verdi who suggested to Boito or Boito who thought himself to use the phrase “Povera donna” [Poor lady] to describe the agony of their love for Falstaff. But Verdi knew those words VERY well, having set them to music already in 1853 in La Traviata. This is after Violetta has sung the first part of her aria that concludes Act I, “Povera donna! Alone and abandoned in this populated desert that they call Paris.” The phrase returns, unchanged and in the same key when Quickly speaks of Alice and then Meg. And it sounds like an interruption: it doesn’t follow from the harmonic progressions leading up to it—it just sits there, a quotation, a fragment. But it is more than an amusing citation: it becomes part of the fundamental structure of the entire scene, where Verdi uses three important fragments of melody to construct Quickly’s discourse. All three fragments are in the same key, C major, to which Verdi returns again and again when he wishes to use these fragments. But in between, the music floats freely, as required by the musical and dramatic context. First there is Quickly’s entering bow, “Riverenza.” Then the “Povera donna.” And finally her indication of the time set for his appointment with Alice, when her husband is away “Dalle due alle tre” [“Between two and three o’clock”]. Verdi creates this tune in triplets from previous melodies. In the first scene of the third act, after Falstaff has been thrown into the Thames River with the laundry from the laundry chest, Quickly returns to invite him to meet Alice in Windsor Park, disguised as the Black Hunstman. She insists upon the innocence of Alice, and the music moves to D-flat major: “Alice piange, urla, invoca i santi” [“Alice weeps, screams, invokes the saints”], but then Quickly repeats: “Povera donna.” Suddenly the music veers headlong into C major, but now for the very first time, Verdi develops this idea, instead of just quoting it. For the most part Falstaff is an opera constructed in just this way, with stupendous fragments of inventive melodies, organized to create a true drama through Verdi’s music.

The most famous solo passages for the character of Falstaff are extraordinarily brief. In the middle of his conversation with Alice in the second scene of Act Two he sings “I love you, and it’s not my fault,” which Alice completes by adding “if your ample flesh is so vulnerable.” Without a moment of hesitation Falstaff launches his “Quand’ero paggio.” This remarkable “solo” is constructed from a reference not in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but from Henry IV, Part I. In Act Two, Scene Four, Prince Hal is insulting Falstaff, and says: “Here comes lean Jack; here comes bare-bone. How now, my sweet creature of bombast? How long is’t ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?” To which Falstaff responds: “My own knee? When I was about thy years, Hal, I was not an eagle’s talon in the waist; I could have crept into any alderman’s thumb-ring. A plague of sighing and grief, it blows a man up like a bladder.” From this idea, Boito developed his poetry:

Quando ero paggio
Del Duca di Norfolk ero sottile,
Ero un miraggio
Vago, leggero, gentile, gentile.
Quello era il tempo del mio verde Aprile,
Quello era il tempo del mio lieto Maggio.
Tanto era milzo, flessibile e snello
Che avrei guizzato attraverso un anello.

[When I was a page to the Duke of Norfolk I was thin, I was a mirage, vague, light, sweet, sweet. That was the time of my green April, that was the time of my happy May. I was so thin, flexible, and quick that I could have slipped through a ring.]

There, at the end, is Shakespeare’s metaphor, of the alderman’s ring. Verdi’s setting is musically very simple, a kind of A-B-A, but at the end he does not allow a moment to elapse before continuing, in the same tempo, with the entrance of Alice. With all the care the composer lavished on integrating this fragment into the continuity of the opera, however, he permitted, indeed wanted it to be repeated in the opera house! And the original Falstaff, Victor Maurel, was known (with Verdi’s approval) to sing it multiple times, even in his native French.

Even the most sumptuous melody in the entire opera enters into this play of fragments. First, we hear it in the second scene, when Nanetta and Fenton are caught in their amorous interchange, after two interruptions of their love scene: “Bocca baciata non perde ventura... Anzi rinnova come fa la luna” [“Lips kissed do not lose their good fortune, which instead renews itself like the moon”], a couplet that the very-well-read Boito borrowed from a fourteenth-century proverb used by Boccaccio in the Decameron. This phrase then becomes an integral part of the formal sonnet that Fenton sings at the beginning of the last scene, of which these verses and this music form the final section. But when the piece seems finally to be heading toward a clear cadence, Verdi doesn’t allow it to finish. It is interrupted first by Fenton who follows Nannetta’s voice and then by Alice who interrupts their tryst.
Instead of a moral finale as in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (“Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” [“This is the end of he who did evil”]), Falstaff, after everything that has been done to him, announces the greatness of comedy and its role in the human drama, citing—in the translation of Boito—a famous phrase of Shakespeare’s. Now, with the style developed on the basis of fragments, Verdi could do what he could not do in earlier in his career With the famous fugue, “Tutto nel mondo é burla” [“Everything in the world is a joke”] Verdi closes the book on the Ottocento musicale italiano [the nineteenth-century music of Italy].

Falstaff is an opera written with love by a composer who was almost eighty years old, a composer full of love for his characters, in their original Shakespearean guise and in their transformation under the magic of Boito’s poetry; a profound love for music and for everything it could say and express; a love for the traditions of Italian opera (even if he was not prepared to follow them in the way he once did); a love for Italian “clarity” in the harmony, but also for surprising sonorities; a love for the orchestra, which becomes practically an instrument of chamber music. It is always a very special experience to encounter this love in a live performance, especially on this occasion of the bicentenary of the composer’s birth.

Show More

Poets of Sound

William Berger

In case you hadn’t heard, 2013 marks the bicentenary of the births of the two giants of opera, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. It is inevitable that we should compare the two and continue to discuss their relative merits, but much of what is repeated about Wagner and Verdi has grown stale and dogmatic. What was understood about them a hundred years ago was either never true to begin with, or is no longer true in the same way.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate this anniversary is to elevate and expand the discussion surrounding their colossal art.

Download a PDF of this article here

The pairing together of Verdi and Wagner stems from their supreme position in the opera world as well as their common birth year, but there’s still more. People tend to think of them as a sort of “bad cop/good cop” couple, with the faults and glories of one defining those of the other. Wagner, of course, is the “bad cop”: an evil man who stole other men’s wives, never paid his bills, and was an anti-Semitic maniac whose prose spoutings (and perhaps his coded messages in his works) created the blueprint for the Third Reich.

Let’s unpack this. He had two notable affairs with married women—Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima von Bülow. They weren’t anyone’s property to steal, and in both cases the husbands in question participated to various degrees in facilitating the affairs. We don’t even know the exact clinical definition of Wagner’s relationship with Frau Wesendonck, and once he and Cosima committed to each other, they remained loyal. One searches hard (as have many) for evidence of further affairs. Herr von Bülow’s daughters gained a standing in Wagner’s household equal to that of Wagner’s own children with Cosima—there was very little fuss about “his” vs. “my” children. Wagner did run up bills, and run away from them, but so have many other artists (the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte ran as far as Hoboken, New Jersey to escape his creditors), and Wagner was generous when he had money. He was undeniably anti-Semitic, and his obsessive rants on the subject cannot be dismissed in any sort of “let’s just enjoy the music” conspiracy of denial. However, they and their effect on his works must be considered judiciously and with perspective. As it is unacceptable to dismiss his anti-Semitism as irrelevant to his art, so is it unacceptable to dismiss his art as being unacceptable anti-Semitic propaganda.

Here’s the thing: whatever he was, listening to his operas will not make you anti-Semitic. This appears to be the deep-rooted fear, and we must put it to rest. Responding to Wagner’s art will not make you a raging Nazi any more than enjoying a Fanta soda or wearing a Chanel suit will. Similarly, gripping performances of Der Fliegende Holländer have never, to my knowledge, made anyone jump off a cliff in imitation of the frenzied heroine of that great work. Opera doesn’t work that way.

We need to have a better conversation about the relationship between art and politics. There is a relationship, but that fact should not function as a justification of one’s personal dislike of Wagner operas. The simplistic formula of “Wagner = Nazi = Bad” is worse than spurious: it’s precisely the sort of all-or-nothing thinking that is the preexisting condition necessary for the success of totalitarian politics. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross recently made a chilling point on this subject, saying “Hitler has won a posthumous victory in seeing his idea of Wagner become the defining one.”

For our present purposes, this reductive conception of Wagner provides an additional disservice: it makes Verdi, perforce, a saint. Verdi and Wagner were both more complex, nuanced, and ultimately interesting than this. For example, Verdi’s dealings with his (eventual) wife Giuseppina Strepponi belie his irreproachable image. It appears he caused her to give up a young son from a previous liaison for adoption, as well as a baby girl who may well have been his own daughter, and it seems there were financial as well as social considerations behind these decisions. Whatever the reasons, it stands in contrast to Wagner, who spent money (borrowed, admittedly) to raise Bülow’s children once he took responsibility for them. Giuseppina’s later letters to Verdi begging to spend more time in Milan—near his mistress—so she could occasionally see a selected few other human beings are truly wrenching. There must have been times when this woman envied Cosima’s relative freedom and status in society. Verdi once dismissed a tenant laborer from his estate for “stealing” an orange off a tree. He was not a bad man. He was human. He never denied his operatic characters their humanity; we should not deny him his.  

Some of the assumptions about who Wagner and Verdi were as people might be informed by our deeply seated ideas about the nations they represent: Germany is seen as formidable, brainy, scary; Italy is vivacious and melodic but unthreatening, romantic (literally), and tasty but not very substantial. Italian culture charms us; German culture commands our respect. It’s time to dispense with these clichés and the operatic prejudices they engender. It used to be thought that Wagner was difficult for people to grasp while Verdi was easy. This may have been true 100 years ago (I doubt it), but it is absolutely not true today. Movie soundtracks, for example, are structured much like Wagner scores, and the general public is quite comfortable with systems of leitmotifs. Conversely, some of Verdi’s most powerful moments are so economically expressed (e.g. Rigoletto’s shifting moods in his narrative “Pari siamo” and Desdemona’s “Ah! Emilia, addio!” in Act IV of Otello) that the easily distracted modern listener may miss them. Also, while Wagner’s operas are indisputably profound, Verdi’s are equally so. His genius for melody merely confused scholars for many years. But repeated hearings have made it apparent that the score of his Requiem, for example, or the first five minutes (the “Storm Scene”) of Otello present profound cosmological studies. Our attempts to pigeonhole these two giants into respective roles are illogical, unconstructive, and partly informed by tired cultural assumptions. Perhaps the best response we can offer to Wagner’s racism is a fearless and unceasing reassessment of our own.

We need new thinking not only when we contrast Verdi and Wagner: we need to engage in a little old fashioned myth-busting when we try to assess their similar achievements. It is often repeated that their greatest accomplishment lay in superseding earlier conventions of operatic form (set arias, choruses, ensembles, and so forth) for a more fluid, through-composed style that liberated the entire art. Indeed, Wagner himself told everyone (in volumes of contentious prose) that this was his intent. He wouldn’t even call his later works “operas,” emphasizing their uniqueness with the term “music dramas.” It’s a case of Wagner the Theorist confusing rather than elucidating Wagner the Composer. It’s time to say bluntly that the Theorist was wrong. He was wrong about Jews being the problem with music and he was wrong about arias being the problem with opera. Other commentators dutifully echoed the master’s dicta, and have ever since. They’ve applied the same ideas to Verdi, who also sought to transcend what he considered limiting conventions of earlier opera with his final masterpieces.
The problem is that this has just enough truth to be truly misleading. We’ve learned that operas before Wagner (from composers like Donizetti, whom Wagner disdained) have dramatic validity if they are performed well.  Many of Mozart’s operas appear at least as modern as Wagner’s, and who in Wagner’s day could have predicted the modern enthusiasm for Handel’s stylized baroque operas? And while scholars have always conceded the genius of Verdi’s final operas Otello and Falstaff (really, how could they not?), his earlier masterpieces (Rigoletto, La Traviata, et al.) have not diminished in stature. Indeed, his initial successes (Nabucco, Ernani, et al.) have grown in public and scholarly estimation. Similarly, some thought only Wagner’s mature “music dramas” should be presented at the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, but Wagner himself disagreed. He decreed that all his operas from Der Fliegende Holländer on should be performed there.

It’s true, however, that both Verdi and Wagner continued to grow throughout their careers, and their final works were truly revolutionary even for them. But the power of these works lies not in being free of operatic conventions (they’re actually not); their power derives from the fact that their composers soared to unprecedented heights of artistic expression when they felt themselves free to write what they wanted.

Here’s what Verdi and Wagner really had in common, and why they rule the opera house: They knew the human voice better than anyone who ever lived—not just the voice that sings on the stage (although that too), but the multiplicity of voices within each human representing internal processes.

Literalists don’t really get opera. A father once told me he had a unique experience of Wotan’s farewell in Die Walküre’s Act III because he had to say goodbye to his favorite daughter when she went to college. I asked him if siblings who commit incest experience that opera’s Act I more deeply than the rest of us. The artistic genius lies not in making an abstract experience personal to you, but in making your personal experience universal to all. Thus Wotan’s farewell is about every time we have to mortify the best part of ourselves. Whenever we have to sacrifice an ideal to the demands of real life (i.e. Fricka), we are putting our “favorite daughter” to sleep and keeping her moribund. The music makes the “word” (story, idea, logos) global, beyond language, ego, dogma.

Verdi does this as well as Wagner, especially with the symbolic pairing of fathers and daughters (e.g. Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto). Verdi and Wagner wed dramatic context and voice types as departure points to create dramas—not the other way around (as many lesser composers do, using the voice to illustrate and [they hope] heighten dramatic situations). Verdi and Wagner are not painters of words. They are the opposite. They use words to help us get to the meaning of the music. It’s better to think of them as poets of sound.

They knew voices well enough to explore complex human dynamics and interactions even beyond the one-on-one examples cited above: They could depict four individuals with conflicting agendas in a single moment  (Rigoletto Act III quartet); or formerly conflicting individuals arriving at a place of harmony (Die Meistersinger Act III quintet);  or an individual against a group (Aida Act II); or the individual against God (“Libera me” of Verdi’s Requiem); or the community against God (Otello storm scene); or the community with God against an individual (Parsifal, Act III); or individuals against each other against nations against other nations against God (Don Carlo, Act III), and so forth. They are masters of change and transformation—Tristan and Isolde as individuals becoming ideas; Der Ring des Nibelungen of one cosmic order becoming another; Parsifal of death becoming rebirth; and the transformation of entire communities (the finales of Falstaff and Die Meistersinger).

They didn’t manipulate the human voice for its own sake—a worthy exercise in itself—but they accomplished so much more. Their voices evoke our own, ones we didn’t even know we had and didn’t know needed to be expressed, the way a stricken note on a string instrument will cause other strings to quiver. And they did it so effectively that, if there is a world 200 years from now, people will be talking about why these two artists continue to hold such a unique position in the performing arts.
William Berger is a writer and radio producer for the Metropolitan Opera. His books include Wagner Without Fear, Puccini Without Excuses, and Verdi With a Vengeance.

Show More

"A Falstaff For the Ages..."

  –San Francisco Examiner
“Falstaff himself was played —nay, embodied—by the great bass-baritone Bryn Terfel...imbuing everything with theatrical and vocal fervor."
"His performance as the fat knight has everything that makes Falstaff irresistible —grandiose self-regard, improbable charisma and a vein of deep poignancy, all conveyed through singing of great power and flexibility."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Terfel's brilliant Falstaff gives wings to Verdi.... The massive and yet pliant voice, powerful and warm, soared all evening."

  –San Francisco Examiner
“Terfel’s very presence seemed to spur his fellow performers to find both the buoyant humor and the rich emotional undercurrent in the piece.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Ainhoa Arteta—as Alice Ford, one of the Merry Wives (and Nannetta's mom)—is a shining soprano.”

  –San Jose Mercury News
Nicola Luisotti “enables us to revel in every aspect of Verdi’s brilliant commentary. It is rare to encounter a conductor so attuned to the wit and richness of Verdi’s masterful score.”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
“Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor Francesco Demuro made a charming pair of young lovers, bringing grace and tonal luxuriance to their Act 3 clinch.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Bryn Terfel owns San Francisco Opera’s Falstaff...in a production that bursts with hilarity even as it teaches darker lessons.”

  –San Jose Mercury News
Meredith Arwady’s “constant delight in the proceedings, and her fantastic voice—her stunning, depth-plumbing ‘Reverenza’...is one for the ages.”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice


  • Tue 10/8/13 8:00pm

  • Fri 10/11/13 8:00pm

  • Tue 10/15/13 7:30pm

  • Sun 10/20/13 2:00pm *

  • Thu 10/24/13 7:30pm *

  • Sun 10/27/13 2:00pm *

  • Wed 10/30/13 7:30pm *

  • Sat 11/2/13 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by Leslie and George Hume and The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund. Nicola Luisotti’s appearance made possible by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, Chairs, Amici di Nicola of Camerata. Mr. Terfel’s appearance is made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.