Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Premiere: La Scala, Milan, 1893
A deeply human comedy full of humor and genuine emotion, Verdi’s last opera is a splendid finale to an unparalleled career in the theater. The story is an amalgamation of scenes from Shakespeare, primarily drawn from the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. It centers on the remarkable personality of Sir John Falstaff, one of literature’s most compelling characters: aging, vain, dishonest, a bit crass, prodigiously self-indulgent with food and drink, but also curiously philosophical. Falstaff had previously appeared in the two parts of the history play Henry IV, where he provided comic relief as well as commentary on the weighty proceedings from the point of view of an everyman. Verdi’s opera includes brief passages and references from the histories, woven together by Arrigo Boito (the composer’s collaborator on his previous opera, Otello) into a libretto that is a dramatic masterpiece in itself. The subject choice of a comedy based on Shakespeare was surprising for Verdi: while there are comic moments in several of his great tragedies (most notably La Forza del Destino), his only real comic opera had been Un Giorno di Regno, his second work for the stage and an utter failure more than 50 years earlier. Falstaff’s supremely well-crafted score, which has long commanded the respect even of Verdi’s critics, shows that the composer was continuing to grow as an artist even as he entered the ninth decade of his life. It is an astounding work and among the greatest operatic comedies of all time.
In a remarkable career spanning six decades, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed 28 operas, at least half of which are at the core of today’s repertoire. Falstaff was his final work for the stage. Verdi’s role in Italy’s cultural and political development has made him an icon in his native country. The remarkable Arrigo Boito (1842–1918) was also a composer (his opera Mefistofele, based on Goethe’s Faust, premiered in 1868), as well as a journalist and critic. The plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) have inspired a huge number of operatic interpretations. Before Falstaff, Verdi had already adapted Macbeth (1847, revised 1865) and Otello (1887, also with Boito as librettist).
The opera is set in and around the town of Windsor, west of London. The historical references in Shakespeare’s plays place the character of Sir JohnIns1Falstaff in the first decades of the 15th century, although traditionally the opera has often been set in Shakespeare’s time, two centuries later. The current Met production places the action in mid-20th century England, after the Second World War—an era when long-established social norms were rapidly changing and the aristocracy lost much of their wealth and influence.
Falstaff marks a stylistic departure for Verdi and occupies a category of its own, without parallels in the history of the genre. The musical ideas come fast and abundantly, moving from one to the next organically and without discernible breaks. The text is of primary importance, well beyond creating opportunities for lyric set pieces of solos, ensembles, and choruses. Much of this could be said for other operas, especially those written after Verdi. What makes Falstaff unique is the abundance of lyricism within such an unusual format that almost completely avoids traditional arias. The orchestra carries the story and occasionally makes literal comments on the action (the jingling of coins—piccolos and triangles—in Act II; the delights of hot wine warming the drenched body—solo flute to violins to full orchestra—in Act III). At other times, it represents the overall spirit of the proceedings, such as in the remarkable prelude to Act III, which contains all the sweeping crescendo of a Rossini overture in less than a minute. Several brief but notable vocal solos stand out, among them Falstaff’s playfully comic recollection of his youth in Act II and his melancholy soliloquy on aging in Act III, as well as Fenton’s serenade in the last scene. But the bulk of the singing happens in ensembles that, despite their highly sophisticated musical structure, seem as natural as speech and adhere perfectly to the lines of the text. The complex counter-rhythms of the ensemble that ends Act I are both funny and the perfect depiction of people at cross-purposes. The opera’s celebrated finale is a fugue in which all the characters take part, each one both a perpetrator, and the butt, of the “great joke of life” Falstaff evokes in his final words.
Falstaff at the Met
Falstaff came to the Met two years after its world premiere, with French baritone Victor Maurel reprising his performance of the title role and American soprano Emma Eames as Alice. It was repeated the following year and then retired until Arturo Toscanini conducted a new production in 1909 that starred Antonio Scotti and Emmy Destinn. This production, too, was repeated the subsequent season and then forgotten. The opera returned in 1925 in another new production, designed by Joseph Urban, conducted by Tullio Serafin, and again starring Scotti opposite Lucrezia Bori as Alice and Beniamino Gigli as Fenton. The breakout performance of the night was American baritone Lawrence Tibbett’s Ford, whose Act II solo elicited a roaring ovation from the audience that was enthusiastically reported on the front page of the New York Times. Tibbett took the title role when the opera was staged again in 1938–39, with Ettore Panizza on the podium, and in 1944, with Thomas Beecham conducting. Leonard Warren was Falstaff for three performances in 1949, led by Fritz Reiner, after which the work again fell out of the repertoire. It returned in 1964 in a production directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Leonard Bernstein, both in their Met debuts. The cast included Gabriella Tucci, Regina Resnik, Rosalind Elias, Judith Raskin, Anselmo Colzani, Mario Sereni, Luigi Alva, Paul Franke, Andrea Velis, and Norman Scott. This staging remained in the Met repertory until 2005, with James Levine conducting 55 performances beginning in 1972. Among the artists who appeared in it are Geraint Evans, Pilar Lorengar, Tito Gobbi, Renata Tebaldi, Cornell MacNeil, Giuseppe Taddei, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Paul Plishka, Stephanie Bythe, Bryn Terfel, Patricia Racette, and Matthew Polenzani.