Everyone loves Italian opera. French composer Georges Bizet is said to have admitted that he loved “Italian music as one loves a courtesan.” Six of the top 11 most frequently produced operas in North America, according to a recent survey, were Italian, and two others were in Italian (by Mozart, of course). Picking one’s favourite from the nineteenth and early twentieth century tragic and comic ricchezza offered by Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and others, is next to impossible.
An opera that displays the qualities of the greatest of Italian operas, but is much less frequently performed is Verdi’s last, Falstaff (1893). It is Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor as seen through the lenses of other plays, namely Henry IV, Parts I and II, in which Falstaff appears. The opera in question also plays a significant, indeed pivotal, role in Italian operatic history – as the ruling maestro, Giuseppe Verdi, passed the torch to a new generation of younger Italian composers.
Falstaff tells the story of Shakespeare’s “fat knight,” Sir John Falstaff. Dangerously short of cash, because of his spendthrift ways (thanks to a penchant for good food and copious wine), he decides he can restore his purse by making romantic overtures to two women of Windsor with well-off husbands. His identical love-missives are shared by the two “merry wives” who decide to teach him a lesson. The first part of this lesson is a humiliation in which, in attempting to avoid being caught at his wooing by a jealous husband, the large and no longer young knight is summarily dumped into the Thames River. This is followed by a second, even more public come-uppance of Falstaff. All ends happily, however, in the creating of a new community in which Falstaff has a part: after singing a fugue together, everyone goes off to dinner with Sir John. You can be forgiven for thinking this sounds more Italian than English.
In the early nineteenth century, opera was largely an Italian affair; indeed, it was this art form that came to define cultural italianità itself after 1861 when Italy became a unified country. As the century progressed, however, the operatic centre of Europe moved to Paris, where Italian opera faced stiff competition from French and then German works. That Parisian German with an Italian first name, Giacomo Meyerbeer, had created a form of “grand opera” that had an enormous influence, even in Italy. And then, of course, there was Richard Wagner, the revolutionary German composer whose music dramas were first seen in Italy in the early 1870s and became all the rage by the 1880s.
In which direction would young Italian opera composers go: the hallowed lyric tradition of the Bellini-Donizetti-Rossini line that had culminated in Verdi, or in the newer foreign fashion? By the 1880s, Verdi was the single most important operatic as well as cultural figure in Italy, an iconic symbol of the Risorgimento who had been a senator in the newly unified Italy. His surname itself had been an acronym for Vittorio Emmanuele Re d’Italia, so that when Italians chanted “Viva Verdi!” – they were expressing a nationalist sentiment akin to that of Verdi’s operas of that time. But, subsequently, he had also produced many of his operas in Paris, and had himself been influenced by its “grand” operatic tradition. However, in his later years he became very concerned about the increasing prominence in the works of the younger opera composers in Italy of what he calls German “symphonism” – that is, where the operatic emphasis was on the orchestra and on harmony, rather than on the voice and on melody (as in the Italian tradition).
The 74-year-old Verdi became livid in 1887 when critics suggested that his opera Otello was Wagnerian because it was more harmonically complex than his earlier works. Verdi and Wagner were contemporaries (both born in 1813), and were likely destined to be rivals, even though they never met. Verdi came to feel that he had to fight Wagner for the musical souls of the young Italian composers smitten by the German’s innovations. As Verdi wrote to his conductor, Franco Faccio, these young composers were not “good patriots. If the Germans, stemming from Bach, arrive at Wagner, they are doing as good Germans should, and that’s fine. But for us, descendents of Palestrina, to imitate Wagner is to commit a musical crime, and we are doing something useless, even harmful.”
When he was persuaded by his (Wagner-influenced) librettist, Arrigo Boito, to write yet another opera, he decided to target those “descendents of Palestrina” and remind them of their Italian identity. After the success of Otello, Boito had written to the then 76-year-old Verdi: “There is only one way to end better than with Otello, and this is to end victoriously with Falstaff – having made all the cries and lamentations of the human heart resound, end with an immense outburst of cheer! That will astonish!” And it did – not only because of Verdi’s advanced years, but because the great composer of tragic operas like La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Aida had turned to the genre of comedy at the end of his career. And what he created was very different from anything before – leaving audiences at the time puzzled.
The music sounded similar, in that it echoed his earlier operas (even quoted them at times): the music of his jealous husband, Ford, bears a striking resemblance to that of the jealous Otello, but this time the context is comedy, not tragedy, so the echoing is ironic. As Ford sings of his suspicions of his wife, his music invokes Otello’s dark rage and sorrow, but the comic context changes the meaning, making Ford somewhat ridiculous.
In other words, the music was familiar yet different. It lacked Verdi’s characteristic broad melodies, its ensembles, its finales. These were replaced by fragmentation, bursts of melody, diverse rhythms and orchestration. As Charles Osborne later put it, Verdi “scatters tunes about as though he were trying to give them away.” The opera’s one typically entrancing Verdian duet, sung by the young lovers Fenton and Nanetta, is repeatedly interrupted, as if Verdi is teasing his listener – which he is. But this is a resolutely Verdian opera nonetheless.
Verdi didn’t only quote himself in Falstaff, though. As mentioned, he ended the opera with a fugue that provoked George Bernard Shaw to suggest that Verdi had “clasped hands with Sebastian Bach.” But others have heard in this fugue a respectful nod to the fugues of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But from what we know about Verdi’s worries about Wagner’s influence in Italy, it’s unlikely that his quotations of Wagner’s works were intended as any sort of respectful homage.
To take just one example, in Act II, i, a soaked and freezing Falstaff is recovering from his being tossed into the cold waters of the Thames River and he is lamenting both his advanced age and his great physical size (which he had celebrated in the first act – in music which he echoes ironically here). In the orchestra, we hear a motif (repeated three times) from Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. There it is associated with the evil character, Klingsor; here it is heard in the context of Falstaff’s temporarily sodden view of the world: “Tutto declina.” Parsifal offers a story of social degeneration brought about by that evil Klingsor, who (we should mention) has castrated himself. So when Falstaff echoes this music, several connections can be made. His dunking in the Thames by the merry wives of Windsor becomes a comic metaphoric unmanning. The second relevant context for this is that when Wagner was composing Parsifal, he was also writing the infamous “regeneration” essays about the degeneration of German culture. Indeed he was obsessed with the idea that everything was in decline. Falstaff’s “tutto declina” sets up the comparison, but the comic contrast of settings assures that the difference is not only noticed, but reinforced by the arrival of the innkeeper with a mug of hot mulled wine that restores both Falstaff and his spirits. This is Verdi’s defiant Italian answer to Wagner’s Germanic gloom.
Who would get this embedded joke? Well, the young Italian composers Verdi was targeting would get it (and all the others), steeped as they were in Wagnerian opera. In fact, in the audience at the premiere of Falstaff was the young Giacomo Puccini. Trained at the Milan Conservatory, he was influenced by Wagner. He and the verismocomposer Pietro Mascagni bought the score of Parsifal as soon as it was published, and the German’s influence can certainly be heard in many of his works.
But in the first act of La Bohème and in his only comedy (!) Gianni Schicchi, we see the influence of Falstaff in the comic rapid-fire interplay of voices and orchestra. But as Shaw put it, Puccini’s earlier opera Manon Lescaut was also Wagnerian and had enlarged the domain of Italian opera by “an annexation of German territory.” Puccini brought together these antagonistic Italian and German, Verdian and Wagnerian traditions (not to mention the French). Verdi’s final lesson in his last opera to those young Italian composers about whom he worried so much was, essentially, “change with the times, but whatever you do, remain Italian.” That’s certainly what Verdi did in his last years – in a most elegant, ironic, self-deprecating, and charming way in Falstaff. Filmmaker Federico Fellini also saw a link between opera and italianità, claiming that “opera is like a mirror in which are reflected the dark sides, the large sentiments, the vitality and brigand sides of the Italian character.” For us, Falstaff is the exuberant comic embodiment of that mirror.
For a recording we recommend Falstaff, Georg Solti (conductor), Goetz Friedrich (director), Gabriel Bacquier (Falstaff), Deutche Grammophone recording/ DVD, 2005.
Linda and Michael Hutcheon have co-written three books on opera: Bodily Charm: Living Opera (2000), Opera: The Art of Dying (2004) and Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (1996).