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Opera Explained: VERDI - Falstaff

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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)


The word 'opera' is Latin and means 'the works'; it represents a synthesis of all theother arts: drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design.

Consequently, it delivers an emotional impact which none of the others can match.

The only one of the arts whose origins can be precisely dated, it was 'invented' inItaly in 1597 as part of the Renaissance - the rebirth of interest in classical values. Asan art form it is truly international, crossing all linguistic and cultural barriers, andit is probably the only one whose audience continues to expand, not in spite of, butbecause of developments in entertainment technology.

From its early origins in Italy opera spread across Europe, establishing individualand distinctive schools in a number of countries. France had an early and longstandinglove affair with it - hence the term grand opera, referring to the massivefive-act creations that graced the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century. Germanyhad an excellent school from as early as Mozart's time, and opera perhaps reachedits highest achievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner. Russia,Great Britain and the Americas have also made their contributions.

In the popular imagination, however, opera remains an Italian concept - and nowonder. From its earliest years it was dominated by the Italians: Cavalli andMonteverdi were among the first to establish its forms; there was a golden age,called the bel canto, at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Bellini,Donizetti and Rossini ruled supreme; Giuseppe Verdi was probably the mostrevered artist in musical history; and, for many, Puccini represents in every sensethe last word in this beloved genre.

Although the twentieth century has not been as lavishly endowed with operacomposers, it can still boast a few, including Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky andBenjamin Britten - and, maybe most significantly in the long run, those errant stepchildrenof opera, the Broadway musical and the Lloyd Webber spectacular.


Comic opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi.

Libretto by Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) based on Henry V, Parts 1 and 2, andThe Merry Wives ofWindsor by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

First performance:Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 9 February 1893.

First UK performance: London, Covent Garden, 19 May 1894.

First US performance: New York,Metropolitan Opera House, 4 February 1895.

Verdi's Falstaff is a glorious autumnal comedy, its libretto based on comic incidentsfrom Shakespeare and set to music by the incomparable Italian composerGiuseppe Verdi. It is a brilliant compilation of scenes from Shakespeare's playsHenry V parts 1 and 2, and the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, and centresaround a series of hilarious adventures as the title character pursues a career ofwooing for financial gain which is as doomed as it is engaging.

It deserves to be the best-loved opera in the repertory, yet for many its charmsare elusive. Can it be that the plot is dull? On the contrary, it is as action-packed asany Victorian dramatic potboiler. Is it lacking in interesting characters? Certainlynot: Falstaff himself is one of the great creations of international theatre and themerry wives of Elizabethan Windsor are more than his match. Is it lacking inmelody? Absolutely not! Verdi poured into this last work enough great tunes toprovide a lifetime's inspiration for any less prodigally gifted composer.

Maybe the problem - if there is a problem - lies in this very wealth of melody.

It almost seems as if Verdi had enough of his best tunes left in him at the age ofeighty to write another Il trovatore, another La traviata and one more Rigoletto -and poured them all into this last work. The result is that one superb tune followsanother at such speed that we barely have time to grasp the quality of one beforethe next is upon us. It is in fact this aspect of the opera that makes an introductionto Verdi's swansong so valuable. Melodic ideas which in any other opera wouldsustain a ten-minute aria are here blown off in a few seconds, so taking time tosavour them - as we do in this introduction - is infinitely worthwhile.

Falstaff's success as a genuinely funny and touching comic opera is due partly toits dramatic situation but also to its array of colourful characters: Falstaff 's downand-out companions Bardolph and Pistol, the toweringly vengeful Ford, and assweet a pair of young lovers as ever sighed upon an opera stage - not to mentionthe like-minded, conniving ladies.

It is of course opera's greatest irony that the Italian master-tragedian who onlyseven years before had astonished the world with its greatest Italian tragic opera -Otello - should return in his eightieth year with a sublime comedy. That he shouldhave chosen the poignant figure of Shakespeare's Fat Knight for his last word in thetheatre, where for many decades he had exposed the tragedy at the root of the humancondition, is quite astonishing. But the final irony is that Verdi closed a brilliant careeras the master of apparently spontaneous melody with a flawless academic fugue, rightat the end of the opera. It is almost as if he was saying to his snooty detractors: 'Yousee, I could have written a fugue all along - I just chose not to!'And which words did he choose to set? Which passage most profoundlysummed up a lifetime's experience? Prospero from The Tempest, perhaps: 'Ourrevels now are ended'? Puck's epilogue from A Midsummer Night's Dream, maybe:'If we shadows have offended...'? No, he took Jacques' speech from As You Like It -'All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players' - and with hismaster librettist Boito altered it to: 'All the world's a joke and man is born clown'.

For all our pretensions to wisdom we are simple fools.

Wagner, Verdi's great contemporary and rival, had ended his career with aprofound spiritual statement, Parsifal, whose depths we are still struggling toplumb. Verdi dismisses the human condition as mere folly. No one is qualified tosay which is the truer philosophy or the more appropriate statement for a lastartistic will and testament, but there is no doubting which is the more endearing.

Thomson Smillie
Item number 8558158
Barcode 636943815823
Release date 09/01/2004
Category CD
Label Naxos Educational
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Timson, David
Timson, David
Composers Smillie, Thomson
Smillie, Thomson
Disc: 1
An Introduction to... VERDI Falstaff
1 Introduction
2 Falstaff's qualities
3 Verdi and Shakespeare
4 Shakespeare's Falstaff and Verdi's librettist
5 Opening: The Garter Inn
6 Falstaff's plan begins
7 Act I, Scene 2: The Ford's garden
8 Enter Ford, Bardolph, Pistol, Dr Caius and Fenton
9 Act II, Scene 1: Mistress Quickly visits Falstaff
10 Enter Signor Fontana
11 Act II, Scene 2: Inside the Ford's house
12 Act III, Scene 1: Falstaff back at the Garter Inn,
13 Act III, Scene 2: Windsor Great Park
14 Enter the townspeople, disguised
15 Final pages of the opera
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