Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, is one of those fabled twilight works, a masterwork from a career not lacking in masterworks. Verdi had not actually undertaken a comic opera since very early in his career, with Un Giorno di Regno in 1840, although there were signs that he had long been interested in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor as a source text. In 1889, when he began the process of creating Falstaff, Verdi had a distinguished career as a dramatist behind him and, to assist in the crafting of the libretto, a veteran composer and author in Arrigo Boito, with whom he had forged a strong working relationship in Otello.
Verdi, Falstaff, T. Gobbi, E. Schwarzkopf, A. Moffo, Philharmonia Orchestra, H. von Karajan
Boito sensed the potential triumph in the work at an early stage in his discussions with the composer, writing in a letter dated 9 July 1889, "All your life you have wanted a good subject for a comic opera. [...] There is only way to end better than with Otello, and that is to end victoriously with Falstaff. After having made all the cries and lamentations of the human heart resound, to end with an immense outburst of hilarity! It's dazzling!" In the summer of 1889, Verdi and Boito exchanged letters discussing the process of distilling Shakespeare's play, with some scenes from the Henry IV and Henry V plays. Boito confessed to Verdi, in a letter dated 20 August 1889, "At first I was in despair at the thought of sketching the characters with a few lines, moving the plot, extracting all the juice from that enormous Shakespearian pomegranate, allowing no useless seeds to slip into the glass." Few descriptions of how one goes about adapting literature as opera are more apt.
Falstaff returns to Santa Fe after a surprisingly short hiatus, having been staged here last only in 2001, and it is staged with remarkable frequency in many houses (some recent ones include Kirov Opera, the Salzburg Festival, Welsh National Opera, and San Francisco Opera). Some essential parts of the opera were clear in Verdi and Boito's minds very early in the work's genesis, and a successful production treats them with care. Verdi mentioned in a letter of 18 August 1889, before Boito had even completed the first draft of the libretto, ""The strangest thing is that I too am working! I am amusing myself by writing fugues! Yes, sir: a fugue ... and a comic fugue... which might fit nicely into Falstaff!" This is, of course, the famous ending of the opera, which offers the comic motto of the work, "The whole world is a joke." Some of Falstaff's misadventures might seem cruel, but ultimately, the opera tells us, all misfortune is just part of the absurdity of existence.
Verdi-Boito Correspondence, ed. M. Conati and M. Medici, trans. W. Weaver
The fugue and the outrageous fairy scene that precedes it are Verdi and Boito's brilliant response to the crucial problem of writing a comedy. As Boito put it early on in their correspondence about Falstaff (7 July 1889), "No doubt about it: the third act is the coldest. And this, in the theater, means trouble. Unfortunately, this is a law common to all the comic theater. The tragic has the opposite law. The approach of the catastrophe in a tragedy (whether foreseen as in Othello, or unexpected as in Hamlet) increases the interest prodigiously because its end is terrible. So the last acts of tragedies are always the most beautiful. In comedy, when the knot is about to be unraveled, interest always dwindles because the end is happy." We know that Fenton and Nannetta will end up married, over her father's objections, and that Falstaff will get his punishment and (perhaps?) learn his lesson, but just how it will happen is held in reserve.
If the fugue was due to Verdi's ingenuity, it was Boito who insisted on the other excellent innovation of Falstaff, the nature of the music for the two young lovers. At one point Boito suggested cutting Fenton's aria (presumably "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola," which remained in the opera), because it seemed to him to be "pasted in there to give the tenor a solo." Instead, he envisioned something quite different for the lovers, as he described in a letter on 12 July 1889: "I like that love of theirs [Fenton and Nannetta], it serves to make the whole comedy more fresh and more solid. That love must enliven all of it throughout and to such a degree that I would almost like to eliminate the duet of the two lovers. In every ensemble scene this love is somehow present [...] So it is pointless to have them sing a genuine duet together by themselves. Their part, even without the duet, will be very effective; indeed, it will be more effective without. I don't quite know how to explain myself: I would like to sprinkle the whole comedy with that lighthearted love, like powdered sugar on a cake, without collecting it in one point." Verdi created music of such light-hearted effervescence for the lovers, and it should be allowed simply to sparkle.
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Verdi: A Biography
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz has written about Verdi's uncharacteristically high spirits during the composition of Falstaff, in spite of many tragic events that occurred in the Verdi circle around the same time: "The composer's philosophy of life often led him to believe that little good could ever happen on this earth. 'Whatever is life? When we are young, everything is pleasant, we are carefree, impertinent, proud, and it seems that the whole world should exist [just] for us. When we are old ... But never mind these miseries.' So he wrote to Stoltz. [...] Nevertheless, when Strepponi and Verdi visited Milan that month, he seemed happy enough. While there, they invited Boito, Giulio and Giuditta Ricordi, their daughter Ginetta, and their son-in-law to dinner.
Verdi was in a cheerful humor, and ... has never seemed younger and in better spirits; in his appearance, words, [and] manner he looked like a contented man. When the champagne was served, when everyone was in excellent spirits, Boito rose and, showing that he wanted to propose a toast, said: 'I drink to the health and victories of the Big Belly!' Everyone was surprised; no one understood what Boito was referring to. (p. 705)In 1893, Verdi went to Milan for the premiere and all of the associated festivities, which he attended with seemingly boundless energy. He and Boito had to appear on the balcony of their hotel to acknowledge the throngs of well-wishers. Phillips-Matz writes, "An unidentified writer who was with them reported that the composer was 'happy and satisfied: his beautiful face was bright with a smile. Verdi gladly received the congratulations of his friends, and did not forget anyone who was there.' [...] Nowhere is there a hint that the composer ever showed fatigue or exasperation during the taxing month before the Falstaff premiere. Instead, several men of science published articles on his extraordinary physical strength, energy, and soundness of mind (p. 718)."
Sadly, Laurent Naouri took the role of Falstaff at Santa Fe only for the first half of the run (through July 11). He will be replaced by Anthony Michaels-Moore, who was certainly impressive in the Met's Peter Grimes earlier this year. The quartet of women will feature Kelley O'Connor as Quickly (she was unforgettable in Ainadamar), and conductor Paolo Arrivabeni will have his American debut at the podium. Director Kevin Newbury has described his production as focusing on the theme of childhood, set in the late 16th century of Shakespeare's play and inspired by "Jan Steen’s paintings of lively domestic scenes."
Performance of Verdi's Falstaff at Santa Fe Opera are scheduled for July 29 (tonight) and August 4, 11, 16, 19, and 23.