Why I love Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel plays the title role of Falstaff Friday.
Mitch Jenkins/Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This story about Falstaff, which will be performed tonight at the Aspen Music Festival, was first published in The Aspen Times in July 2011 and has been updated.

“Falstaff” is not like any other Verdi opera, which may be why it’s taken so long to win over opera fans dedicated to “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata” and “Otello.” For some, including me, it’s a favorite, especially when one of the great singers of the title role is involved.

And that’s why Friday’s much-anticipated performance by Bryn Terfel is the don’t-miss concert on this year’s Aspen Music Festival calendar for some of us. Patrick Summers conducts a handpicked orchestra and members of the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program, which he runs with soprano Renée Fleming.

Terfel has sung this role in great opera houses around the world. The Welsh bass-baritone is a consummate singing actor who oozes the sense of humor necessary to make the role come to life and has the presence to anchor the swirl of activity and music around him in this miracle of a score.

“Falstaff,” Verdi’s final opera, simply abounds with melodies. Only a few times does a character stop and sing an aria that lasts more than a minute or two. His evocative orchestral music sets scenes perfectly, defines character and oozes humor. Verdi folds tunes together with other music so that the flow never seems to cease. The opera hardly ever stands still.

On one level it’s a fizzy comic romp, with parodies of madrigals and church hymns. It also brims with human insight and sharp wit, both in the libretto and the music. It rewards repeated hearings and viewings.

I have seen this opera at least 40 times, and something new delights me every time. Its freshness and vitality makes it hard to believe that it was written by a composer approaching his 80th birthday.

After virtually defining dramatic opera, Verdi turned to comedy for the first time since his early, and disappointing, “Un giorno di regno.” Librettist Arrigo Boito, who successfully transformed Shakespeare’s “Othello” six years earlier into a Verdi masterpiece, found the germ of comic genius in the character of John Falstaff.

Shakespeare introduced the fat, old, reprobate of a knight in “Henry IV Part I,” brought him back in “Part II,” and later used the character to comic effect in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The opera uses the farcical plot from “Merry Wives” and interpolates some famous speeches from the Henry plays to establish and enhance the character. Boito and Verdi convert Falstaff’s famous soliloquy denigrating honor in Shakespeare’s Part I into a harangue. The knight berates his sidemen Bardolfo and Pistola, the orchestra commenting wryly line by line. It is, justifiably, one of the few arias excerpted, and a tour de force for the bass-baritone singing it.

More often, though, Verdi scatters his tunes around like seeds, letting them flower briefly and moving right along. After Mistress Quickly dupes him into thinking he is going to have an assignation with the lovely (and married) Alice, Falstaff puffs himself up and sings a one-minute arietta, “Va, vecchio John” (Go, old John), a perfectly pompous comic turn. The musical transition to the moment is equally wonderful, as Verdi subtly alters Quickly’s signature tune to quote the music he wrote for Iago’s famous “Credo” in “Otello”. He even scores it for cellos exactly as it is played in the moment before Iago sings, “and then, nothing.” For Falstaff, that’s about all he’s going to reap in this play.

(The score teems with dozens of such self-parodying quotes. Those who know Verdi’s operas can laugh out loud when they recognize one unexpectedly.)

In Act I Scene 2, a sweet, lovely duet for the young lovers brings the action to a halt, but only briefly. Fenton and Nanetta find themselves alone on the stage, but then Verdi interrupts the lovers with a large comic ensemble. Every time the lovers can grab a minute alone, the duet resumes. How better to represent the fleeting moments snatched by young sweethearts?

The men start the surrounding ensemble singing in eighth notes, followed by the women in triplets, and then together, 4 beats against 3. Finally, Verdi layers Alice’s long, legato soprano line over the whole thing. Scenes like this require a light touch and precision to perform, despite their complexity and quickness. They always seem in danger of going off the rails.

One of my favorite scenes begins Act III, as Falstaff, wet and bedraggled after being tossed into the River Thames, laments his condition. He resuscitates with a mug of hot wine, while the orchestra trills, swells and revives emphatically along with him, a moment of sheer musical genius.

The final scene, a masterpiece of pacing and scenic writing, begins with a fearful Falstaff alone at midnight as the orchestra chimes the hour in a sequence of 12 eerie chords. Then comes a magical four minutes as the lyric soprano Nanetta sings a sustained invocation to the spirits worthy of Richard Strauss at his creamiest. The crowd scene that follows, with the entire cast, intricately weaves comedy and pathos.

When all is done, it ends with a fugue — not just any fugue, but perhaps the funniest, most astonishing and exhilarating fugue ever written for voices.

Harvey Steiman reviews Aspen Music Festival concerts for The Aspen Times.