'Falstaff': Verdi old, and very fine Music: Composer's energetic final opera made quick work of past failures in a witty way that belied his years.

November 07, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

While there is some competition from such mere septuagenarians as Claudio Monteverdi, Richard Wagner and Leos Janacek, the greatest opera ever written in old age is Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff," completed in his 80th year.

Nothing about "Falstaff," which the Peabody Opera Theatre will perform tonight through Saturday in Friedberg Hall, suggests the work of a man as old as Verdi was when it was finished in 1893.

The piece bustles with activity, demonstrating at every turn its composer's unflagging energy and invention. "Falstaff" even shows that its composer had enough energy to try something entirely new in a career that began nearly 60 years earlier.

Absent from "Falstaff" are the primary colors, broad canvas and tragic melodrama that had characterized all of Verdi's work since 1840, the year of his only previous [and unsuccessful] attempt at comic opera, "Un Giorno di Regno."

Yet, despite its fast-moving comedy, subtle glints of color and jesting high spirits, "Falstaff" is an opera that could only have been written in old age. It is a commentary on life that is rich in accumulated wisdom and a summation of a career that is among the most distinguished in the history of Western music.

"Falstaff" is, in fact, a most sophisticated opera. Even more than in "Otello," Verdi was writing to satisfy himself, rather than an audience. Perhaps that is why "Falstaff" has never been as beloved as "Otello," not to mention "La Traviata," "Rigoletto" or "Il Trovatore."

Critics of the day were charmed by the translucence of the writing, the wit of the music and the technical mastery evident in every measure. But they were puzzled by the absence -- in a work by the greatest master of melody in operatic history -- of a single tune in an aria or an ensemble upon which a listener could seize.

"Falstaff" has fantastic arias and ensembles, but they move at such lightning speed that they cannot be savored in the traditional way. One of Falstaff's important arias -- "Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk" ("When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk") -- lasts a mere 30 seconds. It is a brilliant jewel, but it disappears just as it glints. As Bach, Beethoven and Mozart did in some of their late works, Verdi was writing for the connoisseur.

That we have "Falstaff" -- as well as "Otello," Verdi's other masterpiece of old age -- we owe to his librettist, the poet-dramatist-composer Arrigo Boito. After the completion of "Aida" in 1870, Verdi retired as an opera composer.

But in 1879, Boito began to entice the old man with the prospect of an opera based on "Othello" by Shakespeare, the favorite author of both men. "Otello," completed eight years later, would have remained Verdi's final opera were it not for Boito's desire, as he wrote a friend, to "make that bronze colossus resound one more time."

Verdi had enjoyed working with Boito on "Otello." In July 1889, when Verdi admitted to being interested in Boito's proposal to collaborate on a comic opera drawn from Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor," with Falstaff as the central figure, the poet sent him a scenario within 48 hours.

Verdi was hooked. He wanted a chance to make up for the failure of "Un Giorno di Regno," and he had never forgotten the sting of Gioacchino Rossini's assertion that his temperament was unsuitable for comedy.

Just how wrong Rossini turned out to be is proven by one of "Falstaff's" running gags -- the frustration suffered by its two young lovers, Nanetta and Fenton.

One of the raisons d'etre of opera often seems to be giving two lovers an opportunity to sing an extended love duet. But time after time -- just as they are about to kiss or launch into song -- the two young people are interrupted by their seniors. Their two most sustained duets have a duration of only 90 seconds.

It makes for hilarious opera.

Although "Falstaff" took four years to complete -- in his last years, the composer never permitted himself to work more than two hours a day -- Verdi seems to have known from the beginning exactly how he wanted to proceed.

He certainly knew how he wanted to end the opera. A month into the project, just as Boito had begun to work on transforming his scenario into a libretto, Verdi wrote his collaborator: "I am working too! I'm amusing myself by writing fugues! Yes, sir; a fugue . . . and a comic fugue, which would be in place in 'Falstaff!' "

There is no hard evidence to link any of these fugues with the one that actually concludes the opera, but Verdi's remarks suggest that he thought the best way to express a joyful comic conclusion was in a fugue.

Shakespearean comedies typically end in a reconciliation, and Verdi realized that the most inclusive musical summing up of disparate elements possible would be a fugue, in which the theme is stated successively in all voices of the polyphonic texture, continuously expanded, opposed and finally re-established.

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