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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901).
Opera Explained Series. An Introduction to Falstaff
Narrative written by Thomson Smillie and spoken by David Timson
Musical extracts taken from complete Naxos recording (8.660050-51), conducted by Will Humburg
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Falstaff’s qualities
Verdi and Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Falstaff and Boito, Verdi's librettist

Opening: The Garter Inn and introducing Pistol and Bardolf.
Falstaff's plan to restore his finances by courting Mistresses Ford and Page begins. The honour monologue
Act I, Scene 2: Fords' garden and the ladies laugh at their letters from Falstaff.
Enter Ford, Dr Caius, Bardolf and Pistol, who betray Falstaff’s plans. Nanetta and Fenton exchange lovers words
Act II, Scene 2: Mistress Quickly visits Falstaff and sets the trap for his visit of Mistress Ford
Enter Signer Fontana (Ford) and the jealousy monologue
Act II, Scene 2: inside the Fords' house
Act III, Scene 1: Falstaff back at The Garter Inn soaked to the skin after being tipped from the laundry basket into the river
Act III, Scene 2: Windsor Great Park
Enter the townspeople, disguised
Final pages of the opera

The narration starts (tr. 1) with the opening strains of Bella figlia del’amore, the quartet from Rigoletto, with the suggestion that Falstaff is even greater in melody than its predecessor. Similarly, it is suggested, with a brief clip of Di quella pira from Il Trovatore, that Falstaff is as crowded and action packed as that work. What are needed at this point, I suggest, is a few musical examples such as the laughter of the wives on receiving Falstaff’s letter, or the searching of the rooms by the jealous Ford and his supporter’s whilst the amorous ‘hero’ hides in the laundry basket. These musical examples are in fact included later, as part of the narrative sequence taking the listener through the opera. However they would also have better illustrated the claim that the work has the youthful vitality and humour seemingly lost in Italian opera since the days of Rossini and Donizetti and seemingly in terminal decline since the latter’s L’Elisir D’Amore of 1832. There is no mention of the fact that Falstaff is only Verdi’s second comic opera since his second stage work, Un giorno di regno of 1842, and the possible reasons he did not return to the genre before this final masterpiece. The narrative goes on (tr. 2) to glory in the rich flow of melodic tunes, often very brief, which characterise this opera. Again there is reference back to Verdi’s great middle period, this time to La Traviata and its richness of melody. There is a significant failure at this point to touch upon the significant structural and organisational differences between the composer’s middle period works and his two final operas, Otello and Falstaff. Such differences help explain why the three great middle period triumvirate referred to have always remained in the repertoire of opera houses world-wide whilst the latter have been loved more by musicians than the public at large, at least until recent years. The narration claims Falstaff to stand alongside Mozart’s Figaro and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in purveying an autumnal glow and positive quality of humanity. An interesting subject for a post-graduate thesis perhaps?

In examining the relationship of Verdi with Shakespeare the narrative calls both of them great titans of their art (tr. 3). It postulates that the greater the play the lesser the opera, whilst only in Otello and Falstaff does a composer match the playwright in greatness. The lack of a great opera based on Lear or Hamlet are cited as examples. Wholly appropriate tribute is paid to Boito’s vital contribution in enabling Verdi to match Shakespeare with his capacity for drawing out a taut libretto from the plays concerned. Boito reduced Otello by six-sevenths and in Falstaff reduces the twenty-three characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor to just ten in the opera. The narrative could also have gainfully mentioned Boito’s careful courting of Verdi that encouraged the 74-year-old composer to pick up his pen again and produce first Otello and then, five years later, Falstaff. The relationship had its rocky moments and the irascible Verdi’s feathers were easily ruffled. At one point in the early days of the composition of Otello, Verdi offered to return the libretto to Boito for his own use after a statement by the latter had been misquoted to the composer. In the final section of the introduction (tr. 4) the narrative reverts to the three Shakespeare plays and how Boito merged them to give the major and sub-plots of Falstaff.

In the remaining tracks (trs. 5-15) the listener is taken through the intricacies of the opera with brief musical inserts taken from a not particularly well-sung performance. Occasional musical points are made, the most important, and extensive, concerning the fugue to which Verdi set the final scene. The great man, having long eschewed Bachian purity in the pursuit of melody, showed he could have done it in the purer mode if he had chosen to do so. I suggest that, if he had, the world of opera would have been immeasurably poorer. Yes, Falstaff is full of humanity and youthful vitality, an amazing creation for a man of 79 years. It is also a complex opera and it is well explained here. However, an opportunity is missed to give a broader contextual introduction in the manner often found in earlier issues of this series.

Robert J Farr

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