The Resurrection of Falstaff
Verdi’s farewell opera
by Roger Brunyate
|Falstaff and Mistress Ford|
|Theatrical postcard, around 1900|
The character of Sir John Falstaff, “…that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts… that father ruffian, that iniquity in years…”, was invented by Shakespeare as the drinking companion of the young Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I. In the last scene of Henry IV, Part II, however, the Prince, who has just been crowned King Henry V, cruelly rejects his old companion and has him sent to prison. Perhaps this twist of plot was necessary, since Falstaff’s dissolute life was the very antithesis of the statesmanlike responsibility with which the author wished to cloak the young King Harry. But Shakespeare knew this would be unpopular with his audience, and wrote an epilogue promising to bring the fat knight back in a sequel — a promise he did not immediately keep. At the beginning of Henry V, we learn that Falstaff has died of a broken heart.
True, there was one more Falstaff play to come. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth commanded a sequel showing Sir John in love, and that Shakespeare put together The Merry Wives of Windsor in ten days to oblige her. But his heart was not truly in it. The sequel is pure farce, greatly over-elaborated, and with nothing of the transcendent spirit of the Henry IV plays. The comic genius of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I lies in his infinite capacity for extricating himself from predicaments — indeed, in contriving such predicaments in the first place, just for the pleasure of slipping out of them. The Falstaff in The Merry Wives is, in the words of the great critic A. C. Bradley, “…baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, made to end up repentant and didactic.” The play is a generally prosaic piece, and not merely because it is written mostly in prose.
|Falstaff at Peabody, November 1997|
|Set by James M.Fouchard. Hajime Teri Murai conducting.|
In his fascinating book Shakespeare and Opera (Oxford, 1990), Gary Schmidgall examines the question of why we think of Shakespeare as “operatic” and so much opera as “Shakespearian.” Some of the factors that Schmidgall suggests include the scale, intensity and color of Shakespeare, the violence of his emotional contrasts, the musical nature of his language, and his relish in manipulating words and ideas. Small wonder, then, that The Merry Wives comes over as the least “Shakespearian” play of the canon. It is the only one set in Shakespeare’s own time, among ordinary people whose horizons are limited by the social and mercantile world of a small country town. Its plot deals with the business of tricks and stratagems; even its love interests are pursued more for monetary reward than for passion. Paradoxically, though, the same qualities which make the play unoperatic in the grand sense make it ideally suited to the mechanisms of opera buffa, and several composers before Verdi (notably Nicolai and Salieri) tried their hand at it. What makes this version so different is partly its masterly compression of the original, but mainly the skill of Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boïto in restoring relish to the language, music to the prose, and much of the original scope and moral (or immoral?) scale to the title character.
|“Sweet Anne Page”|
|Painting by George D. Leslie, 1888|
One secret of Shakespeare’s language at its best is the obvious pleasure he takes in words and figures of speech. Even if the words are old ones, he uses them as though coining them for the first time. His characters, indeed, seem constantly to be writing their own verse, and their creative relish becomes an exact parallel for the intensity of their feeling. Boïto’s libretto for Falstaff must surely have the largest vocabulary of any opera; many of the words are to be found only in the largest Italian dictionaries, and several are surely made up. Something of the effect of this can be seen (albeit in translation, but a fine one by Walter Ducloux) in the quartet in which the women decide to take their revenge on Falstaff, calling him every name in the book and out of it:
Watch out, you polygamist,These are but the last 5 measures of an 18-measure quartet which takes less than 25 seconds to perform in all! Meanwhile, each of the other three ladies are singing entirely different words, such as:
Disguised as a vat!
The fate of a bigamist,
A tri- or tetragamist,
Is something to fear,
Above all when you’re fat!
You symbol of vanity!
You lecher, you gnat!
We'll bring you to sanity,
Respect and urbanity;
Yes, all these you'll learn
As we hand you your hat!
|Ellen Terry as Mistress Page|
|Theatrical photograph, around 1900|
But Verdi and Boïto’s greatest stroke in Falstaff was to restore the title character to his erstwhile stature. Consider his great aria on honor, which concludes the first scene of the opera. Although this borrows the famous speech from Henry IV, Part I, that is not its only secret. What matters is the context. Earlier in the scene, Falstaff had defended his sidekicks Bardolf and Pistol against accusations of thievery, even though it is perfectly obvious to him and to us that they are guilty. Once alone, he rounds on them, not for stealing in the first place, but for being so clumsy about it. Now, when they cite their honor as grounds to wriggle out of Falstaff’s request to deliver his love-notes, the old man rounds on them. He is no hypocrite; he admits that he himself has, on occasion, had to walk on the shady side of morality. Even more reason, then, for two such tattered cutpurses to show some humility in speaking of honor. Falstaff at least is a moral realist, and a greater man for it.
|Falstaff at Peabody, 1984|
|Dale Ganz in the title role|
The Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, that poor ghost of the man he once was, ends almost with an apology: “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.” Not so in the opera which restores him to his former vigor. The tricks which have been played on Falstaff now seem but a tribute to his own life-enhancing spirit. Although hoodwinked and beaten, the old man emerges as the prime mover of the action and not its victim, as he himself is quick to point out. In the end, the entire company joins him in a final fugue, Tutto nel mondo e burla, which is a loose translation of Shakespeare’s lines from As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,A fitting envoi to a great comic creation, and to two great careers: Falstaff’s and Verdi’s.
And all the men and women merely players…