By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
When Falstaff premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1893, it landed at the centre of a critical controversy raging between two opposing points of view.
On one side, there were those who saw the future of Italian opera as lying within the “Wagnerian” camp; that is, in compositions that veered in the direction of orchestral complexity, constant melodic development, a reduction of the role of the melodic line and, the subordination of music to the text – elements not generally associated with the great Italian bel canto tradition in which melody and the singing line dominated.
A second, opposing group of Italian critics asserted that Verdi did actually achieve perfection with Falstaff – that it stood at the summit of his career. They explained away the Wagnerian “problem” by attributing Falstaff’s musical innovation to the internal creative development of Verdi’s mind as opposed to any wholesale adoption of Germanic influences.
So, where does Verdi himself fall in this critical maelstrom? He did make it clear his last opera would be quite different from anything he’d previously written. It was to be the comedy he always wanted to compose and from a musical point of view, Verdi said he wrote it as much for his own amusement as for the public’s.
Verdi’s Falstaff is extremely rich, inventive, and fast-paced; the orchestration is sensitive to every shift in the language of Arrigo Boito’s libretto – so, when an image in the text changes, the music turns on a dime and adopts a different tempo and mood, befitting the tone of the text. Paradoxically, this extreme invention is probably also the reason why, at first, audiences did not embrace this opera in quite the same way as they had with Verdi’s earlier works. There is a fleeting quality about it. Falstaff contains an abundance of melody, without much repetition; tunes come and go almost before they can be grasped. The immediately memorable, hummable tunes of Rigoletto and La Traviata are no longer foremost on the composer’s agenda.
Musical Excerpt #1
Excerpt #1 Act III: Aria: “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” (“Borne on the freshening breeze”)
Connection to the story:
As part of an elaborate plot to trick Falstaff at nighttime in the forest of Windsor Park, Nannetta is disguised as Queen of the Fairies and invokes the forest’s nocturnal magic.
This enchanting aria stands alone as the one number in Falstaff which retains the closest links to Verdi’s compositional past. It is constructed strophically (two stanzas, each with a choral response) and is unique within the opera as a self-contained, closed piece: it is clear where the first and second verses end (listen at 1:12 and 3:46); where the chorus makes their replies (1:16 and 3:49) and it has a distinct “ending” (cue applause!). Verdi’s use of a more conventional formal structure for this aria seems appropriate – after all, Nannetta is definitely taking on a “role” in this scene; a theatrical set-up meant to trick and torment Falstaff.
The structure may rely on tradition, but its orchestration shows Verdi at his most sophisticated, using harp and divided violins, a soft swirl of woodwinds (at 0:20), and the glow of horns to support Nannetta’s high, clear voice as it conjures up the moonlit park setting and the glimmering forms gliding and weaving within it. At 0:38, Nannetta (as the Queen) invites her fairies to dance and the pulse switches to a gentle 3/4 time, the accompaniment offering a serene, waltz-like dance rhythm on quiet chords played by harp, horns and strings.
Musical Excerpt #2
Act I, Part 1: “So che se andiam, la notte, di taverna in taverna” (“True, as we go from tavern to tavern at night”)
Falstaff berates Bardolph and Pistol, angry that their exorbitant bar bills will impact his own ability to eat and drink and that if he becomes thin… no one will love him!
This excerpt demonstrates just how attuned Verdi was to Arrigo Boito’s text, his musical imagination spurred on by each twist and turn of the story. Listen at 0:04 as Falstaff reflects on all his years of drinking with Bardolph and Pistol which are expressed in a kind of weaving, zig-zaggy melody that mimics the trio’s wobbly path from tavern to tavern. This tune is quickly thrown over for another as Falstaff describes the brightness of Bardolph’s (decidedly sozzled) nose, comparing it to a guiding lantern. The original musical idea of the inebriated walk is therefore replaced at 0:14 by an upwardly shooting tune, almost like a lick of flame climbing upwards. Already, in only four lines of text, musical ideas shift at a rapid pace. This is a microcosm of what Verdi does throughout the opera, using the music to expand the meaning of the text, providing orchestration that’s very tightly coiled around the meaning and the shape of the words.
Next, Falstaff’s fear that Pistol and Bardolph’s spending habits will cause the eventual wasting away of his own substance is matched by a descriptive, admonishing, braying rhythm on all three trumpets (0:40). Contemplating a potentially debilitating loss of girth at 0:54, Falstaff sings of the importance of his paunch: “Se Falstaff s'assottiglia non è più lui” (“If Falstaff gets thin, he won’t be himself”). Verdi strategically orchestrates this line using piccolo (the highest pitched wind instrument) at one end of the range and cello (a lower-pitched string instrument) at the opposite end. Played together they musically telegraph Falstaff’s broad girth which is mirrored by the wide range between these two instruments. The passage ends with Falstaff proclaiming his paunch as a kind of royal kingdom in which a thousand tongues cry out his name, all to the strains of a triumphant fanfare (1:41). And so, in a brief 90 seconds, Verdi takes us through a quick, constantly shifting series of melodies in which the orchestra, vocal line and text travel together in locked step, very, very quickly!
Musical Excerpt #3
Act I, Part 2, Ensemble: “Del tuo barbaro diagnostico?” (“Your barbaric diagnosis”)
Connection to the Story:
During this brilliant concertato (interaction of two or more groups of voices) the women and men plot against each other while Nannetta’s boyfriend, Fenton, soars above all the agitation saying he only has thoughts for his love!
This bravura, chattering ensemble presents a daunting challenge, demanding impeccable diction from the singers who must deliver their lines at lightning speed and with the utmost clarity. Nine voices are divided into three groups: the men (Dr. Caius, Bardolph, Pistol and Ford who start the ensemble); the women (Alice, Meg, Nannetta and Mistress Quickly joining in at 0:05); plus Fenton whose solo tenor line hovers above them all (heard for the first time at 0:22).
As the finale to Act I, this concertato (interaction of two or more groups of voices) hearkens back to the opera buffa (comic opera) tradition of Rossini who used similarly frantic, multiple-voice ensembles to conclude his acts in operas such as The Barber of Seville. Although often seen as the last great flower of buffa tradition, Falstaff far outstrips any such model both in terms of its form and substance. By this point in his development, Verdi’s relationship with his forebears, not to mention his own past, had grown extremely complex so that Falstaff neither looks back slavishly to 18th-century opera buffa, nor aggressively forward to the symphonism of Puccini. Instead, it embodies something nearer to chamber music and in this way, is completely unique.
One very clear marker which distinguishes this concertato from its potential historic models is its integration of short, vocal melodies (like Fenton’s solo line at 0:22) that possess an intense, sweet, heart-piercing freshness which Verdi sprinkles throughout the opera’s complex ensembles. This integrated type of lyricism provides an important countermeasure of seriousness to the opera’s predominant comedy, allowing Verdi to offer a more complete, realistic portrayal of the human condition.
Finally, the ensemble ends with perhaps the most gorgeous melody in the entire opera but, typically, it’s a fleeting moment. At 1:25 Alice launches “Ma il viso mio su lui risplenderà” (“But my face will shine upon him”): a glowing, surging melodic gem often claimed to be the most beautiful Verdi ever wrote. However, before we can be completely swept away by its gorgeousness, a measure of irony is added when the women continue “…come una stella sull’immensità!” (“…like a star over the bottomless deep!”). Here, the intentional pun on the word “immensity” refers not only to physical space, but to Falstaff’s girth, setting off peals of merry laughter in the women (at 1:54).
Musical Excerpt #4
Act III, Part 2, Ensemble: “Tutto nel mondo è burla!” (“All the world’s a joke”)
Admitting that he has been duped, Falstaff insists on “a chorus to finish the play.” His subject: “All the world’s a joke” and man is borne to be made fool of, though he who laughs last laughs best!
Ending an opera with a big ensemble summarizing the piece’s moral lesson is not unusual – it’s a standard opera buffa (comic opera) convention. However in choosing a fugue (in which a short melody – the subject first heard at 0:06 – is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others), Verdi settled on a musical form which would not have sounded particularly beautiful to the 19th-century Italian ear, and was certainly not expected even in the framework of a 19th-century Italian opera buffa. The fugue is not usually found in operatic music; it’s a technique governed by strict rules and associated with the earlier Baroque era as exemplified by the works of Bach. In the context of Falstaff as a whole, Verdi’s decision to deploy the fugue is curious: just as the entire texture of the opera has been characterized by a very fluid musical expression of loose forms and rapid changes, at the final moment when everything is summed up, Verdi reaches back to a highly academic, traditional structure.
Verdi’s reasons for writing a fugue have been explained in various ways: that his perfect mastery of contrapuntal technique (writing for various voices which sing at the same time) was his way of getting back at those who in his youth refused to admit him into the Milan Conservatory. It has also been interpreted as a sort of call-out to the younger generation of Italian composers not to discount the basics; not to embrace uncritically the rise of a modern music that left no place for the old-fashioned fugue.
Despite its lofty, academic origins, Verdi insisted on calling his finale a “comic” fugue, working it into a climax which breaks off dramatically. After a silence Falstaff, alone and unaccompanied, utters a slow, mock-tragic “Tutti gabbati!” (“We all are fools!” at 2:30) to which the others dolefully reply the same (2:39), as though a sudden cloud were temporarily blocking the sun. That cloud disappears as quickly as it came; the tempo recovers; there is a rapid crescendo (increase in volume) and the opera ends as it began, with a great orchestral flourish (2:53).
Photo: (banner) Daniela Barcellona as Mistress Quickly and Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company/Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Metropolitan Opera/Teatro alla Scala/Dutch National Opera co-production of Falstaff, 2014, Dutch National Opera. Photo: Claerchen & Matthias Baus
All tracks listed are excerpted from Falstaff, Decca 4784167. Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus; Herbert von Karajan, conductor. Giuseppe Taddei, Ronaldo Panerai, Francisco Araiza, Piero de Palma, Heinz Zednik, Federico Davià, Raina Kabaivanska, Janet Perry, Trudeliese Schmidt and Christa Ludwig. You can also experience the Listening Guide online at coc.ca/COCRadio.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001