Why I Love Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ (while others do not)

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alex IrvinThe Aspen Opera Theater Center's production of Verdi's "Falstaff," featuring Noel Bouley in the title role, opens Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – As the long ovation subsided after a stunning performance of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” the folks sitting behind me clearly were not so enchanted. “Too bad Verdi lost his flair for melody after ‘Aida,'” one of them muttered. I couldn’t keep myself from uttering an involuntary “What?!”

“Falstaff,” which opens Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House, simply abounds with melodies, maybe even too many, as Verdi virtually piles them up on one another. Only a few times does a character stop and sing an aria that lasts more than a minute or two, and that might be what flummoxes those who love other Verdi operas but don’t get “Falstaff,” his final opera, which debuted in 1893. While his evocative orchestral music sets scenes perfectly, defines character and oozes humor, Verdi folds the tunes together with other music so that the flow never seems to cease. The opera hardly ever stands still.

Here’s what I find so compelling about this work, and why I cheered when the Aspen Music Festival programmed my favorite opera in its Shakespeare-themed summer. 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 25 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 writing the likes of “Rigoletto” (1851), “La Traviata” (1853), “Aida” (1871) and so many other dramatic operas, 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 1,” brought him back in Part 2, 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, four beats against three. 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 it with a mug of hot wine, while the orchestra trills, swells and revives emphatically along with him.

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.