Verdi’s Falstaff is one of the great stories of opera.
No, not the plot, although it is delectable in its own right. I mean the story about the opera (Falstaff, directed by Leigh Holman and conducted by Nicholas Carthy, will be presented March 15-17 by the CU Opera at Macky Auditorium.)
In 1889 Verdi was 76 and had already retired twice. He was celebrated as the greatest living opera composer, a reputation built on his deeply moving tragedies, including Rigoletto, La Traviata and Aida. Only two years before he had completed the greatest of his tragic operas, Otello, based on Shakespeare.
Lured out of retirement one last time, the master of tragedy then did the most unexpected thing: He wrote Falstaff, a scintillating, joyous comedy, also based on Shakespeare. And how did he end this unprecedented masterpiece? With a big aria or a triumphal chorus? No, with the most unexpected thing possible, a fugue.
“But it’s a jokey fugue,” insists Carthy. Indeed. Usually thought of as the most academic of musical techniques, the fugue in Falstaff is anything but stuffy. It’s a jovial ending to a madcap opera — not to mention a joyous final note for Verdi’s career. Sung to the text “All the world’s a jest,” it ends with the words “he laughs well who has the last laugh” — perhaps a gentle poke at Verdi’s critics over his lifetime.
Carthy says that Verdi “always wanted to write a comedy. There are fabulous bits in Verdi’s tragedies,” he says. “Iago and Cassius (in Otello) are a scream — it’s laugh-out-loud funny.”
Verdi had written one previous comedy, 50 years before Falstaff, but it was not a success. So why hadn’t he attempted another comedy?
“He never had the right libretto,” Carthy says. The “right libretto” was created by Arrigo Boito, who had previously lured Verdi out of retirement with his distilled Shakespearean libretto for Otello. Verdi particularly loved Shakespeare — which may have been his precedent for combining tragedy and comedy — so he was unable to resist either of Boito’s excellent librettos.
Falstaff’s plot is full of hilarious twists and turns; briefly put, it is about Shakespeare’s “fat knight” from Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Somewhat down and out, Falstaff tries to woo two married women as a way of gaining a piece of their fortunes. In the course of his inevitable comeuppance he is dumped in the river with dirty laundry and lured into the woods at midnight, only to be mocked by the whole town. In a side plot, the happiest of Verdi’s lovers, Nanetta and Fenton, are brought together at the end.
Fortunately for all of us, Falstaff takes his humiliation in good spirit. He even leads the closing fugue, singing “All the world’s a jest.”
“It is absolute magic,” Holman says of the opera. “The way Verdi uses the music to enhance the drama — he’s an absolute master at it.”
But magic is not always easy to pull off.
“It’s a super-duper challenge,” Holman admits.
The music is intricate, with fast-moving ensemble numbers, quick changes of mood, and a multitude of rapid entrances and exits. Or, as Carthy says, “There’s a lot of running around to do, a lot of notes to sing, a lot of words to sing.”
But, he adds, as a training company for students, “That’s what we do! We go in for challenges. And Falstaff is just a fantastic learning tool. As well as singing lots of notes and words, the singers are also getting this experience of doing character roles and being really funny on the stage. These roles are perfect because they put the acting up on a level with the singing.”
With its fast-paced action, one thing Falstaff is not is a traditional stand-and-sing opera with big, show-stopping arias. The best tunes emerge from the action, and blend seamlessly back into it.
“Fenton’s aria is gorgeous, and so is Nanetta’s,” Holman says, “but even Fenton’s aria is interrupted at the end.”
“There are so many [melodies] that you can’t take notice of them all before they’re gone,” Carthy says. “It’s as if he has them to throw away. The melodies come so thick and fast that by the time we’re thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a wonderful melody,’ we’re on to the next one.”
For the audiences, it’s all about enjoyment, Holman says. “Be prepared to laugh. I want the audience to know that they have that freedom, even though they see that great composer’s name, ‘Verdi.’ If you’ve never been to an opera where you’ve laughed out loud from your gut, be prepared to do that in Falstaff.”
Verdi´s Falstaff will play at Macky Auditorium March 15-17. Tickets start at $9. For tickets and information, visit www.cupresents.org/events/Falstaff.