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Verdi, Shakespeare, and ‘Falstaff’

Falstaff is not only a masterpiece of opera but, sui generis, both a comedy of pure fun and a great work of art. This combination is an impossibility according to Bergson, who regarded the function of comedy to be the criticism of society and social conventions. Other philosophers argue that the principal targets are human, either moral, such as Molière’s hypocrites, or physical, the misfit or freak (Cyrano de Bergerac). It is implicit in most comedy that the audience should feel superior to its prototypes on stage, thinking itself less prone to vice, less vain, less stupid.

The exceptions to these definitions are found in certain plays by Shakespeare, and, supremely, not in any play but in the character of Falstaff. It may even be that some of Shakespeare’s comedies are the only ones that do not rely on ridicule, in which the humor is free from malice, the irony untainted by bitterness, and the purpose to entertain rather than to teach. Instead of exposing the follies of his characters for the scorn of the audience, Shakespeare offers a variety of amusing scenes with no other aim than its delectation.

But “fun” for its own sake is not usually held in high esteem, nor have many philosophers taken laughter seriously. Studies of it are rare, in fact, and some of the best-known fail to comprehend more than one or another aspect of the phenomenon. Thus Hobbes’s much-quoted description, “sudden glory,” begins loftily, even suggesting a metaphysical dimension, then disappoints by attributing the exalted effect to a demeaning cause, hypothesizing that laughter arises from a “sudden conception…of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.” And another observer on the subject, George Meredith, trips conspicuously over his thesis that “Larger natures are distinguished by the greater breadth of their power of laughter.” Dante for example?

Laughter, like most other innate behavior, is culturally determined. Homer’s gods are allowed to laugh, but Plato’s Republicans should not. And though Aristotle may have composed a poetics on comedy, none survives, nor does other proof that he gave much consideration to the cathartic value of laughter. But if early Greek comedy is ritualistic, and political, the Roman brand farcical and pornographic, the medieval moralistic, then the comedies of Shakespeare do not fall into any single category. (Certainly The Merry Wives of Windsor does not aim to propound a moral truth; Falstaff upbraids Pistol and Bardolph for robbing Dr. Caius, not because it is wrong, but because the manner of the theft was so unaesthetic.) Shakespearian comedies divide, instead, into the serious and the light, according to theme and to whether all’s well that ends well. That the light ones are less highly valued today may be due partly to a prejudice in twentieth-century criticism, over which Chesterton lamented: “A light touch is a mark of strength and not of weakness.”

According to John Dover Wilson, “In studying the character of Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor may be left out of account.” The real Falstaff is the one in the Henry IV plays, and the most perspicacious analysis of him is still Samuel Johnson’s:

The man thus corrupt, thus despicable, [makes] himself necessary…by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety…an unfailing power of exciting laughter…[his] wit [is] not of the splendid or ambitious kind…. Falstaff is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.

This is also the character of Verdi’s Falstaff, and it is created as much by the music as by the words.

The libretto of the opera is an adaptation of the Merry Wives play, as is most of the operatic Falstaff’s dialogue. Boito drew only slightly from the great historical plays, but his selections are crucial. In the opera, the latter part of Falstaff’s monologue on honor comes from Henry IV, Part I, while other interpolations include: the image of Falstaff as a slender youth in the old, fat Falstaff’s courting song to Mistress Ford, this from Henry IV, Part I; Falstaff’s third-act encomium on wine, borrowed from Henry IV, Part II; and, in the opera’s final scene, the line, “My wit creates the wit of others,” derived, in essence, from Henry IV, Part II.

Boito’s libretto deletes more than it adds, and telescopes, concentrates, simplifies to meet the demands of converting spoken to musical drama. In reshaping the structure he reduces the episodes as well as the number of characters. One reason for these changes was to match each role with another in the same vocal range; thus Falstaff and Ford are baritones, Fenton and Caius tenors, Mistress Ford and Nannetta sopranos, Mistress Quickly and Mistress Page mezzos. Since Falstaff’s exploits in the Merry Wives took place in a five-act frame, awkward for operatic purposes, Boito fashioned a classical three-act Italian comic opera. No doubt the story lent itself so easily to its new form because it was originally derived from Boccaccio situation-comedy. But as Boito wrote:

to make the joyous comedy live from beginning to end, to make it live with a natural and communicative gaiety, is difficult, difficult, difficult, though it must seem simple, simple, simple.

Boito, moreover, adapted as well as translated Shakespeare’s language. Verbal humor is a part of the merriment in the Wives, and the play brims with current phrases, puns, neologisms, malapropisms—such as Mistress Quickly’s “she’s as fartuous a civil modest wife…,” which anticipates not only Sheridan but Joyce. Some of Boito’s linguistic adaptations were made merely to improve the sound of the corresponding words in Italian, as when he changed the hour of Falstaff’s assignation with Mistress Ford. But, at another extreme, Boito takes the liberty of reversing the view that a man’s corpulence causes him to sink. In the play, Falstaff says that he was saved from drowning only by the shallowness of the water: “You may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.” Yet in the opera he asserts that “If this puffed belly didn’t float me, I would surely have drowned.”

In at least one place Boito successfully rivals Shakespeare’s wordplay. This is in the opera’s final scene, when Falstaff answers the wives’ prayer, “Domine fallo casto!” (“Lord make him chaste!”), with “Ma salvagli l’addomine” (“But save his abdomen”). Verdi embroiders the joke by having the wives intone a taunting chant that overtly refers to the “Hostias” in his Requiem, and by accompanying the tune with an imitation of an organ in the woodwinds. But making fun of himself provides Verdi with some of his slyest humor. Bardolph and Pistol sing their mock-penitential “Falstaff immenso!” in the same rhythm and key as Aida’s “immenso Ftha“; Mistress Quickly’s “Povera donna” obviously alludes to Violetta’s self-pitying scene in the first act of La Traviata; and Ford expresses his jealousy in an aria reminiscent of Othello.

In adapting the Wives to opera, Boito supplied the basis for these and other parodies partly by renewing certain features of the Rossini tradition. Falstaff, in fact, is a virtuoso’s treatise on musical style, spanning Italian musical history from fifteenthcentury antiphon to canon, fugue, and baroque instrumental forms. By the time he wrote the opera, Verdi’s range was so great that he could even celebrate such a deity as Mozart, in the revels of the last scene. Elsewhere, Beethoven’s boldness of imagination is recalled in the swaggering music expressing Falstaff’s elation at the prospect of his conquest of Mistress Ford.

For many years, Arrigo Boito, poet, composer, librettist, ardent reformer in art and politics, and, above all, Verdi’s angel, must have seemed to the giant of Busseto more like his demon. When the two men first met, in Paris in 1862, Boito was only twenty, and since Verdi immediately commissioned him to write the text of a cantata, the older man surely had a profound intuition of the younger one’s gifts. But two years later Boito, writing for a French periodical, issued a manifesto that Verdi must have interpreted as a personal attack. The document advocated:

  1. The obliteration of formula.

  2. The creation of form.

  3. The employment of the most comprehensive tonal and rhythmic development possible at present.

  4. The highest incarnation of the drama.

But is it not probable that in some degree Verdi recognized Boito to be right? After all, the author of Il Trovatore complained that he was a prisoner of the most debased operatic traditions, that some of his greatest efforts were flawed and even ruined by outlandish plots and inane dialogue. Perhaps Verdi may also have sensed that his own liberator might be this same Boito. But that could hardly have seemed conceivable during most of the fifteen years after Aida, when Verdi produced no operas but did spend time sparring with his future collaborator, although indirectly, through publishers and friends. When Boito’s Mefistofele failed at La Scala, Verdi was not above remarking that he had nothing against the “Music of the Future” providing its composer had some music in him in the first place.

The story of the way in which Verdi and Boito eventually became opera’s greatest team is well known, but the “dynamics” of the relationship remain an enigma. Despite Verdi’s artistic refinement, and his knowledge of music, literature, history, and the visual arts, especially in relation to the world of opera, he retained some of his peasant traits. Boito, on the other hand, was a cosmopolite, a linguist, and, though partly Polish, a Germanminded intellectual who wrote a book about Mendelssohn (with whom he strangely identified) and who translated Tristan into Italian for Wagner. To have inspired Verdi, Boito must also have had a forceful personality, and his work as a librettist, at least of Othello and Falstaff, is sans pareil and worthy of the originals. In the following description of the composer on his deathbed, Boito even appears to have been infused with some of Shakespeare’s power:

[Verdi] looked downwards and seemed to weigh with his glance an unknown and formidable adversary and to calculate mentally the forces needed to oppose him.

The Falstaff audience must grasp the meaning of every word. Of all operas, it can least be appreciated simply by reading a synopsis, since the words and the music so perfectly supplement each other. An example occurs in the monologue on honor. Being sung without accompaniment, Falstaff’s “l’onore” and all of his inflections are easily understood. But the musical setting invests the verbal expression with levels of meaning beyond the spoken word. Falstaff sings it in his upper register, which shows his indignation because Bardolph and Pistol have used and sullied a term reserved for knights such as himself. His voice falls an octave and grows softer out of shame as he curses them: “ladri” (“thieves”). But the relationship between the notes and tonalities for the two words says more than the words themselves, and in this respect the music adds articulateness even to Shakespeare.

This is not to question the “pure music” concept, but simply to say that the listener who is unable to understand the words will miss important aspects of the music’s dramatic purposes. He may also misconstrue meanings in a way that is not likely in any other Verdi opera. Thus Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, reading aloud their identical love letters from Falstaff, match their suitor’s most florid language with a “grand” melody. it is not blatantly parodistic, and it is a good tune, yet Verdi clearly intends a burlesque, as the exaggerated concluding trill of the female singers confirms.

The musical and verbal pace is swifter than in Verdi’s tragic operas. Arias are compressed into a few measures, recitatives condensed so that a few lines of text are given in a rapid repetition of notes on a single pitch, as if the composer were eager to be done with them. But, in the first place, the opera begins in medias res—as well as on the second beat, which immediately creates the requisite atmosphere of turmoil and does so even more vividly than the antics on stage.

The listener must also hold in abeyance his preconceptions about the nature of melody, for nothing could be further from the truth than the pronouncement of an eminent German musicologist that “in Falstaff, the purely melodic element is set aside in favor of declamation.” The amount of expansive lyric music is naturally smaller than in Verdi’s earlier operas, but that may be attributed as much to the requirements of the genre as to an old man’s shortness of ardor or breath. The lengths of the set pieces for Nannetta and Fenton, who provide the romantic interest, are, in context, perfectly proportioned, even though the listener would like to have more of their music.

The melodic element is omnipresent, in fact, being determined neither by length, nor by the characteristics of other Verdi, but by fragments of tunes and the relationships of a few notes; thus Mistress Quickly’s cadential “Povera donna” suggests an entire aria and is used as a refrain throughout the opera, where it serves to identify and to unify. But Verdi, the musical Midas, can turn even a single note into melody, as the latter half of the honor monologue illustrates. In this one-man catechism, Falstaff asks the questions and then answers them: “Can honor set a leg?” “No.” (Etc.) The “no” is melodic in that it resolves the harmonies to which Verdi has set the questions. These, incidentally, demonstrate one way in which words suggested rhythm and melody to Verdi, although our musicologist would undoubtedly label the result “declamation.” The first question becomes an important tune with which Verdi ends the first act.

The music of Falstaff dances as well as sings. Mistress Quickly’s “Reverenza,” for example, is one kind of minuet, the wedding pantomime in the final scene another. The music of the “Fates” is subtitled Danzetta in the score, but all of the midnight revels, beginning with the entrance of the “Nymphs,” are ballets. Much of the remainder of the opera could be choreographed, too, including the women’s trios, some of the orchestral preludes and vocal ensembles, and even Sir John’s Act I exit piece, bespangled with brass as it is and moving with an elephantine grace. The heritage of Rossini is evident in some of the music’s kinesthetic impulses, but the balance between tradition and invention is in this instance heavily tipped on the side of the latter.

Verdi transformed his language in his final opera even beyond the exigencies of the new comic style. True, he was never a harmonic experimenter and was apparently unaffected by contemporary developments in the use of a palette of newer chords and chord progressions. But the rate of harmonic change in Falstaff is rapid, the chromaticism of some of the music is intensified, and the movement from one key to another is free, with little or no preparation. An instance of the latter occurs shortly before the exit of the three women at the end of the first scene of Act III, in a section of descending sequences which pass through nearly a dozen parallel triads—an effect, though all Verdi’s own, associated with French music of a slightly later date. But if Verdi is not interested in stretching the bounds of tonal harmony, he creates dissonance by other means. In Falstaff’s Act III wine-drinking scene, a flute trill is imitated first by more woodwinds and then, one by one, other sections of the ensemble until the entire orchestra is whirling “drunk.” Here the dissonance is not only in the simultaneous trilling but also in the appoggiaturas with which each one begins. At the opera’s first performances, this effect left some listeners unhappy, but no one seems to have analyzed the reason.

Verdi added to the vocabulary of comedy in music as his work on the opera progressed, though it should be remembered that the first part to be composed was the fugue at the very end. Trills, both vocal and orchestral, become a feature of the opera’s comic style in Falstaff’s honor monologue, but embellishments of all kinds abound throughout. These, however, are less subtle than the rhythmic artifices, the most striking of which is the superimposition of one quartet singing in 6/8 meter on another singing in 4/4. The rhythmic patterns themselves, the presto scales and so forth that had been staples of comic opera from Rossini and before, are additional ingredients. Verdi’s most ingenious stratagem in the rhythmic dimension is no part of the comedy, however, but a device for controlling it. This is the use, in part of Act III, of a single beat through fast and slow music and music of different meters, in order to increase the effect of continuity.

The numerous tricks of Verdi’s musical humor extend from Falstaff’s falsetto to Ford’s mockery of opera singers’ never-ending final cadenzas. Even so, the orchestra is the largest reservoir for the composer’s wit. Examples are endless, but if only one is to be mentioned it should be the eerie effect of a piccolo doubled by violins and cellos two and four octaves below, as a terrified Falstaff contemplates the possibility of growing thin and of therefore no longer being himself. One other effect, an ascending chromatic scale in the horns, evokes the world of Richard Strauss; Verdi introduces it when Falstaff envisions his belly swollen by drowning. But the most spectacular orchestration is in the opera’s final scene, where the sonorities are muted and the articulation “enpointe.”

One fundamental criticism of Falstaff cannot be avoided since it concerns the opera’s dramatic perfection. In the matter of Ford’s jealousy, the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief. But belief in the sincerity of his feeling is essential to the plot. Once Ford has seen Falstaff, however, it is quite impossible for the audience to accept Ford’s fear of the Fat Knight as a threat to Mistress Ford’s hymeneal contract.

A second question arises, at least in this listener’s mind: Are the limits of the opera’s comic conventions overstepped in the music’s unanticipated depth of emotion at the striking of midnight? Falstaff counts the hours out loud and on the pitch of the bell, whose note is also common to each of the ever-changing accompanying chords. The harmony resolves at the final stroke, but Falstaff’s part does not, and moves instead to an inverted position of the triad, conveying his fear. Although he is a ludicrous figure to behold, in his mantle and Wotanlike hat, his pathos is touching. The importance that the aged Verdi gave to this music suggests that the scene meant much more to him than a routine piece of stage business, for which, after all, a few sound effects would have sufficed. Did that final “Mezzanotte” remind him of the lateness of the hour in his own life?

The scene that follows, the last in the opera, is as joyful as any in musical drama. And the words from Henry IV, Part II, that Falstaff echoes at the denouement could also be applied to Giuseppe Verdi: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.”

(This is the second of two articles on Verdi.)

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