Greeted with uproarious laughter and rousing applause upon its premiere at La Scala in 1893, Verdi's final opera Falstaff was a smash-hit with royalty, aristocracy, and critics in its day. Some things never change. The portly knight (Metropolitan Opera baritone
Kim Josephson) and his comic misadventures delighted North Texas audiences during Fort Worth Opera inaugural Festival in 2007.
HE WAS A LIAR, A BRAGGART, A THIEF, A COWARD and a rotund glutton whose appetites included other men's wives (especially wealthy ones). On paper, he was the sort of person only a mother could love. But the salvation of Sir John Falstaff is that he lives only on paper—the brainchild of William Shakespeare, who cherished the character to such an extent that he used him in three plays. So this flawed knight really had no mother, but the Falstaff of the beloved opera that bears his name might be said to have at least three fathers: the Bard of Avon, librettist Arrigo Boito, and, of course, Giuseppe Verdi.
There is a great deal of speculation about the inspiration for the Falstaff character. Some feel he was based on an actual person. Such theories are bolstered by the fact that when Falstaff first appeared in Henry IV [Part l], he was traveling under the name of Oldcastle. Some well-connected relatives of the Oldcastle family took exception to the use of their name, and the possibilitythat Shakespeare was lampooning one of their ancestors, and apparently demanded that a change be made. Other theories abound as to a-real source for Falstaff, with one of the most fanciful being that Shakespeare based the old knight on his own father. But, in the end, it seems that Falstaff is such a perfect character that he is probably a relatively pure figment of the Bard's imagination, unencumbered by the outline of a real person.
Falstaff was such a hit in the Henry IV plays that Shakespeare brought him back a few months or years later (there is much debate concerning the dates of Shakespeare's plays) in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comic romp that is an ancient forerunner of classic British bedroom farces such as Noises Off, that gave the character full license to be even more broadly comedic. Indeed, some scholars feel that the Falstaff of Merry Wives is so different from the Falstaff of the histories that they are not really even the same character. But most casual fans of the Bard have no trouble recognizing the portly rogue in both contexts.
Falstaff's final appearance in a Shakespearean play was in name only. Having given birth to him, Shakespeare also felt the need to kill him off. In Henry V, his death is discussed, mourned, and indirectly blamed on his former comrade, Prince Hal (destined to become the title character of this play), who had turned his back on the old knight and his nefarious ways.
So why did Shakespeare and his audiences so adore Sir John Falstaff? On the most superficial level, he is something of a clown. He is physically, mentally and morally absurd—and any one of these flaws make him good for an easy laugh. Audiences chortle at the blundering stupidity of Falstaff's schemes and how] at the predictably ridiculous results they yield. It is believed that even Queen Elizabeth was a fan of Falstaff and that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives because Her Highness wanted to see the old knight in love,
But for Shakespeare, Falstaff was more than an extended fat-guy joke. He served a number of purposes for the Bard. He could carry the broad comedy of Merry Wives, but it is important to remember that Falstaff is not just a buffoon, he is a titled buffoon. Since he is a knight, he must have done something right or noble along the way. So he was still credible as one of the running buddies of the future king of England in the Henry IV plays. And, more importantly, he was a bloated symbol of the sort of behavior Prince Hal was going to have put behind him before taking the throne.
That is why Shakespeare bothered to report the death of the unseen Falstaff in Henry's past (as personified by the debauched knight) had to be finished before his future as king could truly begin. But Falstaff was not really finished in Henry V. He was resurrected by other playwrights with amazing regularity on British stages throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, sometimes in works cobbled together from the Henry plays and other times in a completely new plot. One author even published a book of Falstaff's letters. And his reappearances were not limited to the dramatic stage or printed page. Mozart's infamous rival, Antonio Saljeri, composed an opera around the character in 1799. Otto Nicolai turned Merry Wives into an operetta in the early 19th century. And, in the 20th century, Orson Wells brought Falstaff to life in Chimes at Midnight—a controversial 1965 film that is cited as both the actor-director's best and worst work.
So, in short, Falstaff is the sort of character that would make any writer fall to his or her knees to thank the muse that delivered him. That is why one 19th century scholar called Falstaff "perhaps the most substantial comic character that ever was invented." It is little wonder that Verdi's librettist was so keen to build an opera around the bumbling knight.
Falstaff was not the first, or even the second, Shakespeare-inspired work Verdi composed. His initial foray into the Bard's plays was Macbeth (1847). Otello, based on Shakespeare's Othello, came in 1887. Both of these dramas proved successful fodder for Verdi because of his skill as a composer and because he had a good libretto in each case. The author of the text for Otello was Arrigo Boito, an Italian poet, librettist and composer who had a deep love for the works of Shakespeare. One of his earliest librettos was for an opera based on Hamlet.
But Boito did not always have his head buried in works of British playwrights. He was an outspoken proponent of Italian nationalism and served in Garibaldi's army during the struggle to unite Italy. Later, he served as a member of the Milan city council. He was also a composer, but his accomplishments in that realm were limited. He produced only one opera, Mefistofele and its 1868 debut was such a disaster that it actually caused riots. Boito revised the opera and offered it again in 1875, when it met a more positive response, and it is still performed today.
Where he really excelled, however, was at writing opera libretti. His credits in this area include Otello and Falstaff with Verdi and La Gioconda for Ponchielli, among others. But despite his credentials—and the rare asset of being a librettist who also had composing skills—Verdi was initially reluctant to work with Boito. The composer was possibly miffed by a poem Boito had written about those who defile the temple of Italian art (there's that nationalism streak again). Verdi erroneously thought that Boito was including him among the defilers and therefore had a chilly attitude toward the librettist. It took some effort by go-betweens to convince the composer to try to collaborate with Boito. And even when Verdi had a thawed a bit, the librettist still had to prove himself by revising the text for Verdi's 1857 opera, Simon Boccanegra. When the new version was successfully presented in 1881, Verdi seemed to change his mind about Boito.
That does not mean, however, that their first collaboration, Otello, went smoothly. There were numerous debates and changes in the libretto throughout the composing process. But Falstaff which Boito based mostly on Merry Wives with just a few contributions from the Henry IV plays, was a different matter. Verdi noted in a letter that the creation of the opera was flowing so easily that 'it seems like a dream." There are a couple of plausible explanations for the unusually harmonious work on Falstaff. Perhaps Verdi had just mellowed by this point (he was in his late 70s when he started work on Falstaff). Or, it may be that the partners had developed such a strong friendship that it greased the wheels of their efforts.
And that is another quality exhibited by Boito that should not be ignored. He was apparently a good friend to have. For example, he once took over a musical director's job he did not want just to ensure that the friend he was replacing, who was dying slowly and horribly from syphilis, would still receive his salary. He became a devoted friend of Verdi in the composer's final years and was at his bedside when he died.
Falstaff seems an odd capstone to Verdi's career. He had composed only one other comedy, Un Giorno di Regno, and it had been a failure. And, by the time Falstaff was suggested to him, Verdi was fearful that he was too old to compose another opera of any kind.
't is not surprising, then, that Falstaff was not Verdi's idea. He was thinking of doing a comic opera, but it was Boito who suggested the subject. He was initially worried about his ability to write an opera at all, citing the "obstacles, of age, of illness." But Boito eloquently urged Verdi to complete the project: "Now, Maestro, again in the name of Shakespeare, give Art and our country another modern victory.'
Verdi was immediately taken with Boito's early sketches of the libretto and, setting aside his concerns about his physical ability to do the job, began composing. As previously mentioned, there were few bumps in the road of Falstaff's development, but Verdi watched his speed all the same. He worked on the opera sporadically over a four year period between 1889 and the work's debut in 1893. But his seemingly random approach to completing Falstaff was not because it was an arduous task. At this late stage of his career, the leisurely pace was simply Verdi's choice. And it is obvious that the aging composer not only was still able to compose, but was also still able to enjoy it. The composer's relaxed attitude about the project was revealed in his letters to Boito, where he usually referred to the opera's title character as "Big Belly."
But why did Verdi choose to do three operas based on the works of Shakespeare? Obviously, the composer had a great love and understanding of the Bard's work. Verdi always looked for passion in the source works for his operas and surely there is no richer vein to mine for that than in the tragedies of Shakespeare. It makes perfect sense that Verdi's grand and sweeping music would be an ideal fit for the violence and emotional intensity of Macbeth and Otello. And it is no surprise that Verdi long harbored a desire to build an opera from King Lear— a dream that was never realized.
But Falstaff is a different animal—lots of laughs and very little angst. Did Verdi agree to this project because he identified with the old knight who had fought so many battles and was now ready for a comfortable chair by the fire? After so many grimly serious operas and a life that had more than its share of emotional pain and anguish, did Verdi come around to believing that, as Falstaff tells us in the opera's finale, "all the world is but a joke"? The composer leaves little behind in his writings to explain why he chose to exit with laughter rather than tears. But, whatever his reasons, the child he, the Bard and Boito fathered has long been adored by almost all who meet him.
- Dr. Punch Shaw© 2007
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He teaches courses at TCU, co-hosts a monthly lecture/discussion group on classical music at Barnes & Noble and frequently contributes reviews and features to various publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
CAST AND CREATIVE
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Adapted from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor & Henry IV
Sung in Italian
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
CONDUCTOR Christopher Larkin
DIRECTOR David Gately
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR John de los Santos
SCENIC DESIGNER Paul Shortt
COSTUME DESIGNER Evan Ayotte
MAKE-UP AND WIG DESIGNER James P. McGough
LIGHTING DESIGNER Nicholas Cavallaro
CHORUS MASTER Tony Kostecki
STAGE MANAGER Kurt Howard
REPETITEUR R. Jason Smith
SUPERTITLE TRANSLATION Christopher Bergen
VOCAL COACH Mary Dibbern
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
DOCTOR CAIUS Jonathan Green
SIR JOHN FALSTAFF Kim Josephson
BARDOLPH Jamin Flabiano*
PISTOL Seth Keeton
MEG PAGE Laura Mercado*
ALICE FORD Brenda Harris
MISTRESS QUICKLY Eugenie Grunewald
NANNETTA Tawny Seward*
FENTON Benjamin Bunsold
FORD Michael Chioldi
NANETTA COVER Ava Pine
FENTON COVER Jamin Flabiano*
FORD COVER George Cornelius*
*Member of the FWOpera Studio
Scenery produced by the Opera Company of Philadephia
Costumes provided by Malabar Limited
Wigs provided by Steven Bryant
All photos by Ellen Appel