SFOpera - Giuseppe Verdi and Falstaff

Giuseppe Verdi and Falstaff

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 many modifications—the reaction of the French public was not enthusiastic. 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 that 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 that the enthusiastic telegrams 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 on a French eighteenth-century translation, far from the original Shakespearean text), in I Capuleti e i Montechi of Bellini (which has very little little to do with Shakespeare), and Verdi’s Macbeth of 1847 and 1865, but the language of the period did not permit the composers and librettists 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 straitjacket.” To which Boito responded at once, with the 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 words 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, 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 alder-man’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, announces the greatness of comedy and its role in the human drama, citing—in the translation of Boito—Shakespeare’s famous phrase. 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” [“Every-thing in the world is a joke”] Verdi closes the book on the Otto-cento 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.

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