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The Resurrection of Falstaff

Verdi’s farewell opera

by Roger Brunyate

 

Falstaff and Mistress Ford, postcard c.1900  
Falstaff and Mistress Ford
Theatrical postcard, around 1900
Shakespeare has the distinction of inspiring more operas based on his works than any other single author. Few of these Shakespearian operas are masterpieces — although Verdi’s Macbeth and Otello must surely be numbered among the exceptions. Fewer still actually improve upon their original. Falstaff, Verdi’s swan-song, written in the Indian summer of his career, achieves just such a miracle, turning a rather second-rate play into a work which is more truly Shakespearian in spirit than its source. Not the least reason for its success is that it redeems a great character whom Shakespeare had himself condemned and killed off, giving him a second triumphant life in a new medium.

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.

Peabody Opera Theatre production of Falstaff, November 1997
JAMES LIGHTNER
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.

  SweetAnne Page; painting by George D. Leslie, 1888
“Sweet Anne Page”
Painting by George D. Leslie, 1888
In Boïto’s hands, the compression of The Merry Wives seems effortless, and so obvious that one wonders why Shakespeare had not thought of it first. Nine characters are cut from the play, as are numerous subplots and unnecessary duplication of incident. In the original, Falstaff had no less than three abortive trysts with Mistress Ford: two in her house, escaping first in a laundry basket and then disguised as a woman, and the final one in Windsor Forest. Boïto keeps only the first and last of these, which become the finales to the second and third acts respectively. Shakespeare gives Falstaff three interviews with “Mr. Brook” (Mr. Ford in disguise, acting as an agent provocateur); Boïto and Verdi have only one, but make it into a duet for two baritones that is arguably the finest scene in the opera. Instead of three suitors vying for the hand of “sweet Anne Page,” (or Nannetta, as she is called in the opera) Verdi concentrates almost entirely upon one of these, her true love Fenton, thus ensuring a core of youthful lyricism to run through the comic hugger-mugger of the rest of the piece.

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,
Disguised as a vat!
The fate of a bigamist,
A tri- or tetragamist,
Is something to fear,
Above all when you’re fat!
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:
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!

EllenTerry as Mistress Page, c.1900  
Ellen Terry as Mistress Page
Theatrical photograph, around 1900
The prosaic quality of the source makes little difference in an opera, since the poetry is in the music. The delicacy of Verdi’s fairy music, the sense of magic which suffuses the entire last act, the lyricism of the young lovers, and even the unexpected grace of much of Falstaff’s own music, is of quite a different order. Even in the less lyrical sections, the overwhelming impression is one of lightness of action and nimbleness of wit. Falstaff is one of those works whose style is unique and instantly recognizable. Through his music, Verdi has woven the disparate elements of the original play into a deft scherzo, seamless as a piece of gossamer.

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.

  Dale Ganz as Falstaff
Falstaff at Peabody, 1984
Dale Ganz in the title role
Falstaff has little humility himself, it is true. Indeed, he boasts big and dreams even bigger. Through his words and music, he transcends the humdrum — and the more outrageous he gets, the more magnificent he becomes. Not for nothing is this part one of the great baritone roles in the literature. Listen to the swagger and glorious melodic surge with which he describes his anticipated wooing of Mistress Ford. Avoid, if you can, being caught up in his glee as he tells the disguised husband that he is only too glad to seduce his wife. Hear him speak of the slender, nimble page that he once was, and see if you don’t (even for the moment) believe it. And, in the third act, when he is sitting in the twilight, soaked from his ducking and trying to dry out, see if the effect of mulled wine on his indomitable spirit reviving his belly-laugh view of the world does not conquer all!

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,
And all the men and women merely players…
A fitting envoi to a great comic creation, and to two great careers: Falstaff’s and Verdi’s.

Falstaff playbill       Return to top

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