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ClassicsOnline Home » Opera Explained: VERDI - Falstaff (Smillie)
The word ‘opera’ is Latin and means ‘the works’; it represents a synthesis of all the
other arts: drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design.
Consequently, it delivers an emotional impact which none of the others can match.
The only one of the arts whose origins can be precisely dated, it was ‘invented’ in
Italy in 1597 as part of the Renaissance – the rebirth of interest in classical values. As
an art form it is truly international, crossing all linguistic and cultural barriers, and
it is probably the only one whose audience continues to expand, not in spite of, but
because of developments in entertainment technology.
From its early origins in Italy opera spread across Europe, establishing individual
and distinctive schools in a number of countries. France had an early and longstanding
love affair with it – hence the term grand opéra, referring to the massive
five-act creations that graced the Paris Opéra in the nineteenth century. Germany
had an excellent school from as early as Mozart’s time, and opera perhaps reached
its highest achievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner. Russia,
Great Britain and the Americas have also made their contributions.
In the popular imagination, however, opera remains an Italian concept – and no
wonder. From its earliest years it was dominated by the Italians: Cavalli and
Monteverdi were among the first to establish its forms; there was a golden age,
called the bel canto, at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Bellini,
Donizetti and Rossini ruled supreme; Giuseppe Verdi was probably the most
revered artist in musical history; and, for many, Puccini represents in every sense
the last word in this beloved genre.
Although the twentieth century has not been as lavishly endowed with opera
composers, it can still boast a few, including Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky and
Benjamin Britten – and, maybe most significantly in the long run, those errant stepchildren
of opera, the Broadway musical and the Lloyd Webber spectacular.
Comic opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi.
Libretto by Arrigo Boito (1842–1918) based on Henry V, Parts 1 and 2, and
The Merry Wives ofWindsor by William Shakespeare (1564–1616).
First performance:Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 9 February 1893.
First UK performance: London, Covent Garden, 19 May 1894.
First US performance: New York,Metropolitan Opera House, 4 February 1895.
Verdi’s Falstaff is a glorious autumnal comedy, its libretto based on comic incidents
from Shakespeare and set to music by the incomparable Italian composer
Giuseppe Verdi. It is a brilliant compilation of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays
Henry V parts 1 and 2, and the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, and centres
around a series of hilarious adventures as the title character pursues a career of
wooing for financial gain which is as doomed as it is engaging.
It deserves to be the best-loved opera in the repertory, yet for many its charms
are elusive. Can it be that the plot is dull? On the contrary, it is as action-packed as
any Victorian dramatic potboiler. Is it lacking in interesting characters? Certainly
not: Falstaff himself is one of the great creations of international theatre and the
merry wives of Elizabethan Windsor are more than his match. Is it lacking in
melody? Absolutely not! Verdi poured into this last work enough great tunes to
provide a lifetime’s inspiration for any less prodigally gifted composer.
Maybe the problem – if there is a problem – lies in this very wealth of melody.
It almost seems as if Verdi had enough of his best tunes left in him at the age of
eighty to write another Il trovatore, another La traviata and one more Rigoletto –
and poured them all into this last work. The result is that one superb tune follows
another at such speed that we barely have time to grasp the quality of one before
the next is upon us. It is in fact this aspect of the opera that makes an introduction
to Verdi’s swansong so valuable. Melodic ideas which in any other opera would
sustain a ten-minute aria are here blown off in a few seconds, so taking time to
savour them – as we do in this introduction – is infinitely worthwhile.
Falstaff’s success as a genuinely funny and touching comic opera is due partly to
its dramatic situation but also to its array of colourful characters: Falstaff ’s downand-
out companions Bardolph and Pistol, the toweringly vengeful Ford, and as
sweet a pair of young lovers as ever sighed upon an opera stage – not to mention
the like-minded, conniving ladies.
It is of course opera’s greatest irony that the Italian master-tragedian who only
seven years before had astonished the world with its greatest Italian tragic opera –
Otello – should return in his eightieth year with a sublime comedy. That he should
have chosen the poignant figure of Shakespeare’s Fat Knight for his last word in the
theatre, where for many decades he had exposed the tragedy at the root of the human
condition, is quite astonishing. But the final irony is that Verdi closed a brilliant career
as the master of apparently spontaneous melody with a flawless academic fugue, right
at the end of the opera. It is almost as if he was saying to his snooty detractors: ‘You
see, I could have written a fugue all along – I just chose not to!’
And which words did he choose to set? Which passage most profoundly
summed up a lifetime’s experience? Prospero from The Tempest, perhaps: ‘Our
revels now are ended’? Puck’s epilogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, maybe:
‘If we shadows have offended…’? No, he took Jacques’ speech from As You Like It –
‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players’ – and with his
master librettist Boito altered it to: ‘All the world’s a joke and man is born clown’.
For all our pretensions to wisdom we are simple fools.
Wagner, Verdi’s great contemporary and rival, had ended his career with a
profound spiritual statement, Parsifal, whose depths we are still struggling to
plumb. Verdi dismisses the human condition as mere folly. No one is qualified to
say which is the truer philosophy or the more appropriate statement for a last
artistic will and testament, but there is no doubting which is the more endearing.
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Opera Explained: VERDI - Falstaff (Smillie)