Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Verdi’s Falstaff

Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a lyric comedy in three acts, superbly conducted by Riccardo Muti, with Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Luca Salsi as Ford, Eleonora Buratto as Mrs. Alice Ford, and Daniela Barcellona as Mrs. Quickly, along with other excellent soloists and with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, has been an utterly delightful way to celebrate April 23, the date we conventionally associate with the birth and death of William Shakespeare, some 400 years after he died.

(Actually, Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564, and was buried on April 25, 1616. Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon has preserved these records in an age that regarded baptism and burial as holy occasions of far greater importance than mere birth and death. April 23 is the conventional date for Shakespeare’s birth and death because it is St. George’s Day, the traditional date for commemorating the death of England’s patron saint in 303 AD. A charming myth, don’t you think, to suppose that Shakespeare managed to die on his own birthday, and in spiritual company with the saint who is credited with having rescued a king’s beautiful daughter from the devil in the shape of a fearsome fifty-foot-long dragon.)

This Falstaff has unquestionably been a highlight of Chicago’s Shakespeare 400 celebration. Falstaff is my favorite among all of Verdi’s operas, with Otello (splendidly performed in Orchestra Hall in April of 2011 by Muti and company) as a close second. These two late operas show Verdi at his best, fortunately having been brought out of an intended retirement by his librettist, Arrigo Boito. Together, they conceived the brilliant idea of combining the Falstaffian highlights of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with immortal moments from his Henry IV plays, especially Falstaff’s soliloquy on honor from the battle scene of 1 Henry IV and Falstaff’s praise of wine from 2 Henry IV. These moments show Falstaff as a superb ironist, talking about honor as a quality sought after by brave warriors but of little use to them once they are dead (“Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday”), and extolling sherry wine for its ability to make the brain “full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes.” These insights fit neatly into the richly composite portrait of fat Falstaff, who is in many ways a coward, a buffoon, a thief, a ludicrous boaster, and a dissolute alcoholic while also somehow managing to be the irrepressible embodiment of joie de vivre, the apostle of living life to its fullest.

Rumor has it that Queen Elizabeth I was so taken with Falstaff in the Henry IV plays that she commissioned a command performance of Falstaff in love. The result, supposedly, was The Merry Wives, Shakespeare’s truest comedy in the sense of being perfectly funny and romantic without a countervailing tragic or nearly tragic complication. It is also the most perfect example in Shakespeare of city comedy, able to mock gently urban mores with a satiric plot of catching socially pretentious creatures in the web of their own absurdities. Nowhere else does Shakespeare set his comedy in a bourgeois English village which happens to be also the home of a royal residence, Windsor Castle.

A huge benefit of seeing Verdi and Boito’s operatized version of the Falstaff story in a concert performance rather than in the opera house is that it enables us to concentrate on the music: on the superb voices of the soloists, on Muti’s deft conducting, and perhaps most of all on the orchestra. Here, in Orchestra Hall, we are treated to hear and watch an ensemble that is perhaps three times the number of players that could be accommodated in most opera pits: four trombone players, for example, one of them playing a bass trombone at least eight feet long, four trumpets, five French hornists, two harpists, six clarinetists of various persuasions, seventeen first violinists and an equal number of second violins, thirteen violists, eleven cellists, nine double bassists, and so on. Size is not everything, of course, but to hear and see the violinists executing Verdi’s rapidly ascending scales in perfect union is to experience breathtaking perfection. More substantially, we appreciate what the orchestra is asked to do in its witty underscoring of the sung lyrics. No Verdi score matches Falstaff in its pyrotechnic versatility and cleverness in providing musical interpretation, as in the repeated joking on the time for Falstaff’s intended assignation with Alice Ford, “Dalle due alle tre” (“Between two and three,”) or Mistress Quickly’s mocking salutation of the fat knight, “Reverenza!” (“My respects!”), or the command of silence, “Zitto!” (“Hush!”). Verdi and Boito should have done more comedy. This is music and voice and theatrical art brought together with sublime success.

Because Verdi’s Falstaff is an avowed adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (with moments of the history plays thrown in), comparisons of the two are legion. Many are the opera fans who regard Falstaff as an improvement over its Shakespearean original. My own preference is to cherish both as inimitably wonderful, but I do of course see the point of those who prefer the opera. The Shakespearean plot is simplified and thereby easier to follow. Many characters in the original disappear in the operatic version: the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans, the Justice of the Peace Robert Shallow, his dimwitted nephew Abraham Slender, Slender’s foolish servant John Rugby, the Host of the Garter Inn (mentioned, but never appearing on stage), Meg’s husband George Page, and still more. In Shakespeare’s comedy, these are “humors” types, that is, burlesque caricatures who display various features of absurd behavior like jealousy, fatuous self-confidence and French foreign-ness. Many of their quirks of behavior and speech are, in Falstaff, folded over into the “humors” of those who remain: Doctor Caius, for example, is a composite of the jealous Frenchman (Caius) and the testy Justice of the Peace (Shallow), along with his nephew, Slender. Falstaff himself is endowed with “humors” qualities found in other Shakespearean caricatures. The compression provides clarity of plot along with the compression needed in reducing a stage comedy to operatic proportions.

At the same time, that compression and eliding leaves out a lot of rich satirical representation of human folly. The practical joke that the Merry Wives play on Falstaff with Mistress Quickly’s help, of inducing him to accept the invitation to an affair so that we can laugh at the lengths to which Falstaff is driven to extricate himself from an embarrassing exposure, is wonderfully funny in Falstaff as it is The Merry Wives. But Shakespeare’s play, by providing one more such escape plot than remains in the operatic adaptation, increases the comic pleasure that we and the wives enjoy in wondering whether this fat old man, having repeatedly been caught at his lecherous attempt, can possibly be tricked into submitting himself to the same danger yet another time. He does submit thus, in the Shakespeare, to the comic credit of his inventive tormenters.

More than anything else, the brilliance of Boito’s and Verdi’s Falstaff, so splendidly performed for us in Orchestra Hall, is a tribute to the greatness of Shakespeare’s comic creation. Falstaff has become for us a composite of all the ways he has been characterized, in plays about English history, in a city comedy, and in the opera that bears his name. We are blessed to have him in all these guises and in all these genres.

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and compara­tive literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.