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8.558158 - Opera Explained: VERDI - Falstaff (Smillie)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
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.
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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