Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff made its triumphant debut in February 1893, when the composer, born in October 1813, was nearly eighty, and eight years before his death. “What a joy!” wrote the composer to his librettist, Arrigo Boito (1842-1918). “To be able to say to the Audience: ‘WE ARE HERE AGAIN! COME AND SEE US!!” (Capital letters and exclamation marks are Verdi’s own.) Nor has there ever been a more powerful musical expression of joy. And music, I believe, can express the joy of life more completely and transcendentally than non-musical theater. Falstaff’s cascading sequence of intricate rhythms, soaring lyrical melodies, and what can only be described as sheer musical laughter does, at any rate, soar well beyond what Shakespeare achieved with the exploits of his fat knight.
Verdi’s two other great Shakespeare operas, Macbeth (1847) and Otello (1887), equal their Shakespearean originals in power of insight, although they attain slightly different insights and through different routes. But Falstaff moves into another realm altogether, giving the best reply I know in all art to perpetual questions about the meaning of life. How deliciously it thumbs its nose at stupid stereotypes of aging that dominate culture, now as then. (Slowing down? Crumbling? Halting? Try: assured mastery, new power of insight, fizzy rapidity, and a newfound ability to laugh at the body, at sex, at vulnerability, even at death.)
How lucky our city was this April to have three performances of this work, one on the actual 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, conducted in a superb concert version by Riccardo Muti (himself age 74), far and away today’s greatest interpreter of Verdi’s music.
Sir John Falstaff is a much-beloved Shakespearean character. In his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, critic Harold Bloom even argued that with this character Shakespeare enlarged our sense of our own human possibilities. I have always been a skeptic. The Falstaff of Henry IV, Parts I and II is just not very endearing in his grossness. His unbridled self-indulgence does not strike me as very joyous, and his more serious meditations (about honor, for example) make him dark and cynical rather than deep. If someone wants a friendship with a fictional human being who embraces bodily humanity while not ceasing to be articulate and even profound, she would do better to spend her time with Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, a distinctly superior and funnier life companion, who has capacities for tenderness and a sense of justice that appear nowhere in the somewhat hollow Falstaff. (There were no Jews in Shakespeare’s England.) If we next consider the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor—the play supposedly penned as Shakespeare’s reply to Queen Elizabeth’s request to see “the fat knight in love”—we find a very superficial slapstick farce, with none of the delicacy or poetic insight of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies.
Arrigo Boito has distinctly improved upon Shakespeare. For a start, he has melded the two Falstaffs very cleverly, following the basic outlines of the comic plot of Merry Wives, but inserting monologues and asides drawn from the history plays, thus making the character not simply ridiculous. One notable example is the final scene, in which Falstaff seems about to become a mere target of slapstick humor, as the fairies pinch and prod him—but then he shows the capacity for self-awareness and detachment that is his hallmark in the histories, saying, “Son io che vi fa scaltri. L’arguzia mia crea l’arguzia degli altri.” “I am not only witty in myself but the cause that wit is in other men,” a direct quote from Henry IV Part 2, Act 1, scene 2. Boito’s Falstaff has a charm, a lightness, that the histories’ Falstaff lacks, and at the same time a depth that is surely absent from the buffo fat knight of Merry Wives.
But Boito’s improvement goes well beyond his reworking of Sir John. For he has simply displaced Sir John from the center of the play, turning it over to the four zestful women who make the plot move. Slenderly characterized in Shakespeare, Alice Ford, Meg Page, Mistress Quickly, and Nannetta (Anne) are given highly distinctive, and endearing, musical characterizations, while at the same time the wives’ ensemble plotting is a very model of friendship and reciprocity. (Here the opera bears comparison with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with its portrayal of friendship and scheming in the women’s world.) And in a pleasing contrast to the constantly plotting mature women, Nannetta, and her lover Fenton, lend the work a gossamer lyricism that Verdi compared to sugar dusted over the top of a cake.
As this description already shows, it is impossible to go far in characterizing the Verdi/Boito achievement without talking about the music. (Verdi could not read Shakespeare’s English words, so his connection to Shakespeare was always mediated by the lyricism of his own beloved language, and, above all, by his musical imagination.) Verdi wrote only one other comic opera, the disastrous early Un Giorno di Regno (1840). And comic interludes in several of the serious operas (for example the page Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera) are not especially successful. What a surprise, then, to find that he is fully the equal of Mozart as a composer of operatic comedy. Rapid and unpredictable, the score fizzes with all kinds of interrelated energies of love, friendship, humor and playfulness. As Roger Parker writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, “The listener is bombarded by a stunning diversity of rhythms, orchestral textures, melodic motifs and harmonic devices.” From the dash of the opening (with no overture) to the concluding fugue, “All the world is a jest,” “Tutto il mondo è burla,” the work moves forward with astonishing energy and variety. Indeed, its polyphonic complexity defeats most conductors, and even the best of conductors can virtually never make it work fully in the theater, a reason why Muti has long favored concert versions of opera generally, and a reason why we should agree with him for this work at least. In Chicago this spring, Muti brought to the work a clarity, a rhythmic precision, and a sheer energy that are rare indeed in performances of Verdi, which can easily slip into the obvious and the self-indulgent. Hearing Muti’s Verdi is like looking at a beautiful building that has recently been cleaned of grime and soot. The ensembles of Act 1, which can be heard fully realized in recording but which almost always come apart slightly in staged performances, were rendered here with beautiful crispness, and the concluding fugue was all that it ought to be. In the uniformly excellent cast one can single out the witty and humane Falstaff of Ambrogio Maestri, the zestful Alice of Eleonora Buratto, and the gently lyrical Nannetta of Rosa Feola.
Because Falstaff lacks obviousness—no big tear-jerking arias, not even big comic or lyrical arias like those of Mozart, but only the bustle of life in all its earthy delight—its fortunes in the opera house have always been uneven. Championed by great conductors from Toscanini to Muti, it has not been a huge favorite with the opera-buying public. But has more to tell us that any number of tearjerkers.
Shortly after Verdi died, Boito wrote that “this octogenarian” was “the most powerful expression of life that it is possible to imagine.” And Verdi did indeed achieve—in life and in his work—a vital and joyful immersion in ongoing living that never yielded to depression or hopelessness. Of all Verdi’s expressions of life, Falstaff may be the deepest and most vital, a protest against mortality not through mawkish self-pity but through sheer delighted aliveness and creative power.
I am grateful to Saul Levmore and Jennifer Nou for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this review.
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at University of Chicago, appointed in the philosophy department and the law school. She writes on ethical and political philosophy, the history of Greek and Roman philosophy, feminism, gay rights and the nature of the emotions. She is the 2016 winner of the Kyoto Prize in Philosophy and the 2017 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. She received her MA and PhD from Harvard, her BA from New York University and fifty-six honorary doctorates from universities in various countries. Read More…