Everything you need to know about Verdi’s last opera.
Who was the composer?
You know you’re listening to Verdi when you hear: wonderful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. You know you’re watching a Verdi opera when you see: brilliant drama and realistic characters – Verdi was incredibly demanding with his librettists, seeking real human stories..
The composer was born in a small village in Parma, Italy to a poor family. By the time he died, more than 80 years later, his fame was such that 28,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay their tribute.
He wrote many operas and was always on the look out for a strong subject, often turning to the theatre for inspiration.
Today, his operas regularly appear on the bills of opera theatres around the world. He is most famous for Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Don Carlos, Aida, Falstaff and Otello.
What happens in the story?
He’s old, he’s rotund and he’s broke, but Sir John Falstaff isn’t the kind of man to let any of that get in the way of a good time. Unpaid bar tab? No problem! A timely seduction of two rich wives can solve that. Unluckily for Falstaff, the wives are as rich in wits as they are in cash, and our fat knight will soon discover that the one who laughs last, laughs longest.
Who are the characters?
Sir John Falstaff: an elderly, ruddy-nosed and fat knight, who thinks quite a lot of himself!
Bardolph & Pistol: Falstaff’s lackeys
Mrs Meg Page & Mrs Alice Ford: the wives Falstaff would seduce
Mistress Quickly: a conspirator with Meg and Alice
Nannetta & Fenton: Alice’s daughter and her secret lover
Ford: Alice’s husband
Some things to listen out for
- In his final opera, Verdi thoroughly enjoyed circumventing the conventions of opera: there is no overture, no opening chorus, and the action doesn’t stop for traditional arias.
- In Act 1, while the men and women each conspire in their separate groups, Verdi has them sing in different time signatures: the men in 4/4, while the women sing in 6/8.
- As if to give us a measure of the plot, the orchestra often gives us bursts of instrumental laughter.
- While Falstaff himself describes the reviving effect of a little alcohol, trilling through the body, the orchestra gives us a massive trill, beginning with a flute and coursing through the whole orchestra.
- When Nannetta and Fenton are on the stage, listen out for their pretty love music. Verdi wished it to be “as one sprinkles sugar on a tart, to sprinkle the whole comedy with happy love without concentrating it at any one point.”
This production is …
Rapid-fire comedy with plenty of visual humour, this beloved Simon Phillips production of Verdi’s quick-witted opera makes the most of Falstaff’s declaration that “the whole world is a jest, man was born a great jester…”
A clever set by Iain Aitken is by turns a tavern, a house and a wintry forest, with plenty of theatrical magic to add to the fun. Tracy Grant Lord’s exaggerated period costumes add to the visual humour.
A little history
In 1887, Verdi declared “After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at last the right to laugh a little.” Perhaps haunted by Rossini’s very public taunt: “Though I greatly admire Verdi, I believe him to be incapable of writing a comic opera,” Verdi still held an ambition to write a comic opera (his one other attempt had failed). Boito, who he had worked with on Otello, was only too happy to oblige, beginning a libretto based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with a little help from Henry IV.
Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera, and although he delighted in the libretto Boito had prepared, the composer feared he was too old to finish it. It took him some time to commit to the project, and once he did, the composer bemoaned the slow pace at which he worked. In 1891 he wrote to Boito:
“[Falstaff] is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart; I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straightjacket.”
It took almost two more years to finish the work. It premièred in February 1893 at La Scala in Milan in front of the who’s who of Italy, who paid more than 30 times the usual ticket price for the privilege. When the opera concluded, applause for Verdi and the singers went on for more than an hour!
Yet, as Verdi had himself predicted, it fell out of favour due to its lack of showstopping arias and traditional forms. Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini did much to return it to the canon and it is now recognised as one of Verdi’s greatest works.
(Or, some trivia in case you get stuck for a topic when in the queue for the bathroom.)
- While composing Falstaff, Verdi nicknamed the opera “pancione,” – “the big belly”.
- Verdi wanted Victor Maurel to sing the title role, but the baritone’s contractual demands were so “exorbitant” that Verdi halted the entire project. (The pair eventually reached agreement.)
Falstaff is on at Arts Centre Melbourne from December 1. Tickets and more info: opera.org.au