Giuseppe Verdi • Falstaff
Commedia lirica in three acts
by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Libretto by Arrigo Boito (1842–1918), based on the comedy Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor and extracts from King Henry IV by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
With German and English surtitles
Print program (PDF)
Zubin Mehta, Conductor
Damiano Michieletto, Director
Paolo Fantin, Sets
Carla Teti, Costumes
Alessandro Carletti, Lighting
Christian Arseni, Dramaturgy
Walter Zeh, Chorus Master
Ambrogio Maestri, Sir John Falstaff
Fiorenza Cedolins, Mrs. Alice Ford
Massimo Cavalletti, Ford
Eleonora Buratto, Nannetta
Elisabeth Kulman, Mrs. Quickly
Stephanie Houtzeel, Mrs. Meg Page
Javier Camarena, Fenton
Luca Casalin, Dott. Cajus
Gianluca Sorrentino, Bardolfo
Davide Fersini, Pistola
Philharmonia Chor Wien
“I am not writing an opera buffa but portraying a type. My Falstaff is not merely the figure who appears in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is simply a fool who is duped by women, but also as he appeared under the two Henrys [i. e., in both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV]”. This remark of Verdi’s, recorded by Italo Pizzi in his Memorie verdiane (1901), neatly encapsulates what the composer was intending in Falstaff, his last opera. He was aiming not to revive an amusing or ridiculous figure in the tradition of the old Italian opera buffa but to portray a human character in all his different facets, as one would expect from Verdi the great humanist. Arrigo Boito, with whom Verdi had enjoyed a growing friendship since the premiere of Otello, fortunately knew exactly what kind of libretto was required in order to motivate the nearly 80-year-old composer to collaborate on another opera. It is thus primarily thanks to Boito that Verdi was finally able to fulfil a long-cherished wish, namely to compose a comic opera. “Boito has written me a lyric comedy quite unlike any other”, he reported in a letter in 1890. Premiered on 9 February 1893 at La Scala in Milan, the opera contains a certain amount of conventional situation comedy but is above all a character comedy, with music that in its portrayal of the figures oscillates between inner sympathy and ironic distance.
In writing the libretto the highly cultivated and widely read Boito was aware that he would have to draw not only on Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor (on which Otto Nicolai’s opera of the same name is based) but also the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV in order to portray Falstaff in the full range of his emotions and thought. Verdi on the other hand, who set the libretto between 1889 and 1892 with surprisingly few changes, devotes such a wealth of musical ideas to the strength and vitality as well as to the sensitivity and poetry of the protagonist that we cannot fail to take Falstaff absolutely seriously as a human being – all the more so as this is what he is denied by the people around him.
Admittedly, Falstaff is a “scoundrel” (Verdi’s description), someone who gives people a hard time, a knight on his uppers who is continually devising new wiles to preserve his corpulent figure and thus his identity. He goes about this with brazen presumption. So is he a sponger? Falstaff has been seen as the anachronistic aristocrat, forced by financial straits to hobnob with the rising bourgeoisie, whom he nevertheless treats with arrogance and condescension, a view that hardly does justice to the full dimension of the title character, however. If the social hierarchies are blanked out one is left with the generational differences that separate “vecchio John” from the other figures in the play. Falstaff is the diametrical opposite of the dignified elder citizen. He is out to savour life with every fibre of his being, to enjoy everything, including love: “I am still a pleasing Indian summer”, he preens as he places his “fiery letters” to Alice Ford and Meg Page in the page’s hands. At least in the case of the two married women his complacency is greater than his ability to realistically gauge his erotic potential, that is, his chances of success. One may find this incongruity between aspiration and reality comic or tragic, according to one’s disposition.
On the other hand, Falstaff’s wisdom – so to speak – of old age consists in not caring a jot about propriety or what other people think of him. In his monologue about honour he demonstrates the emptiness of this concept: in the final analysis honour is just a word full of “air that flies away”. Verdi impressed upon Boito that Falstaff was to have spirit and should not be depicted simply as a corpulent toper. In his blithe disregard for norms and morals Falstaff is also deeply subversive. The danger he represents for upstanding citizens is clearly demonstrated by the brutality with which the latter feel obliged to punish him, even taking the law into their own hands to chastise him in the final scene of the opera.
At the beginning of Act Three, after Alice and her followers have tipped him into the Thames to general applause, the embarrassed and humiliated Falstaff muses: “A thieving world. – A scoundrelly world. A wicked world!”. Verdi quotes this melancholy exclamation in a letter to Boito in 1890, commenting that he knew all too well how true it was. What kind of world is it that refuses to tolerate someone like Falstaff and takes such vigorous action against him? A world in which everything revolves around money, power and standing, in which the wealthy Ford schemes to marry off his daughter Nannetta to Dottor Cajus against her will, and displays his strongest emotion when, suspecting that his wife has betrayed him, he fears the possible loss of his reputation and status. Against this staid advocate of work and honour, how incomparably richer is Falstaff with his claim to pleasure and enjoyment! The women at least distinguish themselves by aiding and abetting the young couple Nannetta and Fenton to marry – even if their only motivation for doing so is perhaps to enable the couple to enjoy something that is lacking in their own lives. Is it not precisely that longing for the “grand emotions” that is expressed in the fervour with which Alice and her friends quote from Falstaff’s love missives (set by Verdi in such indulgently lyrical vein), only to burst into laughter at the very next moment? At the end Falstaff asks the “common people” around him what they and their lives would be without him. What indeed.
Translated by Sophie Kidd