Spotlight on Falstaffby Joseph So
/ November 1, 2013
Flash version here.
Of the twenty-eight works in the operatic canon of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Falstaff holds a special place. His last work and a staple in the standard repertoire, Falstaff received a total of 121 performances worldwide in the last five seasons, from 2008/9 to 2012/3. Among the composer’s operas, Falstaff ranks only 9th in the popularity sweepstakes, behind some of the composer’s more popular La traviata (553), Rigoletto (395) and Aida (272). This being Verdi’s centennial year, these numbers are bound to go up. Falstaff is receiving a number or revivals in Canada this season, at the Opera de Montreal, Opera Hamilton and Pacific Opera Victoria.
Falstaff is one of only two comic operas by Verdi, the other being Un giorno di regno, an early work without the musical maturity that was to come later in the composer’s creations. Verdi had full intentions of trying his hand at comedy a second time but never found a subject to his liking. Eventually Arrigo Boito, who penned the libretto to Verdi’s penultimate Otello, in 1887, proposed a subject based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Working with the composer, Boito completed the libretto in 1890. Verdi composed the score over the next two years, and the work had its premiere at Teatro alla Scala in February 1893 to an enthusiastic reception by the public. It was his last large-scale work, although Verdi did compose a short ballet for Otello in 1894 and the oratorio Quattro pezzi sacri in 1897.
If the casual opera fan is puzzled by why Falstaff is held in such high regard by musicologists, it’s probably because stylistically, this opera is quite different from the Verdi we’ve come to know and love. One of the oft-heard complaints about Falstaff is that “it lacks tunes.” It is true that this is an ensemble opera – the few arias are either more dramatic recitatives or monologues, like “Va, vecchio John” for Falstaff or Ford’s “È sogno? O realtà”. Alice, the “prima donna” of the opera, has no aria at all. The one true aria – and it’s lovely – is Fenton’s “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola” in Act 3, with part of its melody previously shared with Nannetta in Act 1. The dearth of arias is not an indication of lack of melodic inspiration. In fact, the score is chockfull of short spurts of melodies that are not repeated or developed into full-fledged arias: the way Verdi would have composed earlier in his career. Sometimes, an exquisite melody is incorporated into an ensemble. The best example is the sublime cantilena assigned to Alice –
“Facciamo il paio in un amor ridente
di donna bella e d’uom apparicente,
Ma il viso tuo su me resplenderà
Come una sorella sull’immensità”
It is the heart of the Act 1 quartet for the four women (Alice, Quickly, Meg, Nannetta). Lasting only about a minute, this refulgent melody rivals anything Verdi has written. What we have in Falstaff is the most complete melding of music and drama in any of Verdi’s operas. Having essentially moved away from the “set pieces” of recitative/aria/cabaletta, Verdi’s swan song is textually and dramatically driven rather than showpieces for the divo and diva. It also represents the introduction of a great variety of orchestral textures and rhythms, often lightly scored, giving the piece an effervescence and youthful vitality that are all the more remarkable when one considers that Verdi was 80 when he composed the score. Given its mercurial nature and the rapid-fire comedic moments, the orchestration in Falstaff is complex and challenging to the pit and singers alike. The ensembles likely require more rehearsal time than virtually any other Verdi opera to ensure failsafe accuracy – any misstep by a soloist can easily lead to disaster. The actual music lasts less than two and a half hours not including intermission, but with enough musical ideas for something a lot longer. There’s not a superfluous note, thus the opera is never cut. A connoisseur’s work, Falstaff yields its magic slowly, with its inherent idiosyncrasies and musical challenges adding to its charm, which grows with each encounter in the theatre or on disc.
Audio. With each generation there’s one or maybe two singers who truly embody the title role – Mariano Stabile, Tito Gobbi, Geraint Evans, Giuseppe Taddei and (arguably) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the past, and Bryn Terfel and Ambrogio Maestri today. Worthy recordings from yesteryear include Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra with Giuseppe Valdengo from 1950, De Sabata with a wonderful if slightly past-his-prime Stabile (Falstaff) and a creamy-voiced Tebaldi (Alice), Karajan’s famous version with an unidiomatic Alice of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf but a marvelous Falstaff of Tito Gobbi, and Leonard Bernstein’s wonderfully conducted version with a dry-sounding Fischer-Dieskau but a justly famous Quickly in Regina Resnik. Among the modern versions, Terfel sings beautifully for Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, and Thomas Hampson is an uncommonly good Ford. As a bonus, we also have Canada’s own Adrianne Pieczonka as Alice.
Video. There are plenty of choices on DVD. An enjoyable version has Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra starring Bryn Terfel, although Barbara Frittoli (Alice) has too much vibrato for my taste. She is also the Alice in a more recent version from Zurich with Ambrogio Maestri as a genuinely funny Falstaff conducted by Daniele Gatti. If you are a big Maestri fan, there’s another one from the Verdi Festival in Parma 2011, with a less well-known cast, but Maestri is delightful as ever. A nice DVD has James Levine conducting the Met Orchestra starring the underrated Paul Plishka as Falstaff, the lovely Alice of Mirella Freni, and Marilyn Horne with her scary chest tones as Quickly, in the sumptuous Zeffirelli production. A recent performance from Glyndebourne has Christopher Purves as Falstaff, but more importantly for Canadians, it has the marvelous Quickly of contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. The production won’t be to everyone’s taste. All of the above are worthy versions for your library.
Verdi’s Falstaff, Next production: Opéra de Montréal, Nov. 9, 12, 14 and 16. www.operademontreal.com
> Tickets also available as a fundraiser through La Scena Musicale at www.lascena.ca