FALSTAFF — The Ultimate Bel Canto Opera?



What peo­ple do with food is an act that reveals how they con­strue the world,” writes Mar­cella Hazan in The Clas­sic Ital­ian Cook­book. Her point is a good one, and by sub­sti­tut­ing the word “voice” for “ingre­di­ents” in Hazan’s dis­cus­sion of Ital­ian cui­sine, one gets a superb descrip­tion of Ital­ian bel canto opera – and just what makes Verdi’s Fal­staff the supreme mas­ter­piece it is.

The essen­tial qual­ity of Ital­ian food can be defined as fidelity to its ingre­di­ents, to their taste, color, shape, and fresh­ness,” she explains. “The meth­ods of Ital­ian cook­ing are not intended to improve an ingredient’s char­ac­ter, but rather to allow it as much free and nat­ural devel­op­ment as the taste­ful bal­ance of a dish will permit.”

Just as Ital­ian cook­ing depends on raw ingre­di­ents “of the fresh­est and choic­est qual­ity,” bel canto opera depends on great voices. In bel canto opera the empha­sis is on voice, voice, voice. It is through the voice that the drama and emo­tion are pri­mar­ily con­veyed. No mat­ter how skill­fully Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi wrote for the orches­tra (and they were all mas­ters at it), they con­ceived of it as a way to enhance the voice. The orches­tra was the embell­ish­ing sauce, not the main dish itself.

Fal­staff is often viewed as an opera that has almost noth­ing to do with Verdi’s ear­lier works. Some crit­ics have described it as being more like a Wag­ner­ian opera, and com­plained it lacks arias and set pieces. In fact, Fal­staff is the cul­mi­na­tion of bel canto opera. In writ­ing it, Verdi took the ele­ments of Ital­ian opera and boiled them down to their very essence, like a mas­ter chef reduc­ing a sauce.

One of the sur­pris­ing things about Fal­staff is just how often the singers are left com­pletely on their own. Time after time Verdi silences the orches­tra entirely and leaves the voice totally exposed — for a few words or a phrase — but always in a way that points up the drama, as well as empha­siz­ing the voice itself.

Tito Gobbi, a mar­velous Falstaff

For instance, in Falstaff’s famous “Honor mono­logue” when he asks, “Can honor fill up your belly? Can honor set a bro­ken leg? Or a foot? Or a fin­ger? Or a hair?” each ques­tion is asked a capella. But Verdi varies the sound by bring­ing in the orches­tra each time Fal­staff answers the ques­tion with a resound­ing “No.” And it is in the way Verdi’s orches­tra accom­pa­nies each “No” that reveals just what a mas­ter chef Verdi has become in con­coct­ing the tim­bre of his opera.

A less expe­ri­enced com­poser might well be tempted to use the entire orches­tra to ham­mer home the humor of each “No,” giv­ing it a great orches­tral splat — the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of a prat­fall. At least, one might expect, surely Verdi would ask for a loud thump on the ket­tle­drums and a juicy blat on the tuba. But no. Instead Verdi judi­ciously sea­sons this part of his score with a sin­gle clar­inet, play­ing very low in its reg­is­ter,  a sin­gle bas­soon — both play­ing stac­cato — and two string basses (Verdi asks they pluck, rather than bow the strings). Only four instru­ments from the entire orches­tra, and all four directed to play softly. The result is a deli­cious com­bi­na­tion of instru­men­tal tim­bres, redo­lent of irony and acer­bic humor, and utterly right for that moment of the opera.

In fact, it is just that qual­ity of utter right­ness for every sin­gle moment of the opera, the unique­ness and exact­ness of Verdi’s response to the drama and emo­tion of the libretto, that makes Fal­staff such a con­stant joy for the lis­tener. But since every moment of the score has its own color, its own sea­son­ing, it passes so quickly that it is often gone before lis­ten­ers have con­sciously rec­og­nized it.

In the first scene of the opera, the scam­per­ing strings that accom­pany Falstaff’s call­ing for the Page and instruct­ing him to take the love let­ters to Alice and Meg lasts for maybe 10 sec­onds. When Fal­staff answers his ques­tion, “What is honor?” by reply­ing “A word,” Verdi empha­sizes how lit­tle Fal­staff val­ues a word by the del­i­cate orches­tral response: one flute and one clar­inet play­ing four quick, ascend­ing notes, fol­lowed by a four notes from a pic­colo and an oboe going even higher. It is almost over before we even hear it — like the per­fect sea­son­ing in a light sauce that lasts just a sec­ond on the tongue and van­ishes before we can quite make out exactly what it is.

Verdi also uses his orches­tra to move the audi­ence from one strong emo­tional state to quite a dif­fer­ent emo­tion, but he does it so deftly it only reg­is­ters in retrospect.

At the end of the first scene of Act II, Ford gives into his jeal­ously, and works him­self into a tirade, the end of which is accom­pa­nied by the entire orches­tra in full war cry, pas­sion­ately echo­ing the character’s over­whelm­ing rage — for four mea­sures. Two mea­sures later the orches­tra ele­gantly accom­pa­nies the re-entry of a fop­pish Fal­staff, dressed for woo­ing. How does Verdi move an audi­ence from anger to gig­gles in only two mea­sures? The astute com­poser knew that a gen­uine belly laugh always over­throws anger, so out of the thun­der­ing orches­tra, Verdi wrote descend­ing triplets for the horns silenc­ing most of the rest of the orches­tra so audi­ence would be sure to hear the horns’ deep, hearty musi­cal laugh.

This com­bin­ing of astute psy­cho­log­i­cal insights with deft musi­cal touches is part of Verdi’s genius in Fal­staff, and the way he does that, while also pay­ing trib­ute to his bel canto roots, is almost overwhelming.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tic of bel canto opera is the large ensem­ble with which acts often close. Prin­ci­pals and cho­rus all react to what has just hap­pened dra­mat­i­cally on stage, and an extended con­cert num­ber devel­ops. Typ­i­cally one or two of the opera’s main char­ac­ters sing a long, arch­ing lyric line over the rest of the ensemble’s more rhyth­mic, pul­sat­ing music, which pro­vides a var­ied and excit­ing musi­cal tex­ture — and a quite effec­tive, and enjoy­able, close to an act.

Verdi uti­lized this bel canto device at the end of Act I, but he used what had been pri­mar­ily a musi­cal moment, not only to fur­ther the drama, but also to con­vey his pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal insight into the char­ac­ter of Fen­ton. The entire sec­ond scene of Act I is an extended ensem­ble of Mozart­ian per­fec­tion. We meet the Merry Wives of Wind­sor and watch them hatch their plot against Fal­staff (Verdi uti­lizes the bel canto tra­di­tion of writ­ing vocal embell­ish­ments in a character’s music to add empha­sis by writ­ing trills for all of the women to point up the humor of their words); Bar­dolf and Pis­tol tell Ford what Fal­staff is up to and a coun­ter­plot is hatched; and in the midst of all this bustling, non­stop activ­ity the young lovers Fen­ton and Nanetta woo.

Juan Diego Flo­rez, an enchant­ing Fenton

Verdi’s mas­ter­stroke occurs at the cli­max of the nine-part (!) ensem­ble. Eight of the voices are busy plot­ting in scur­ry­ing eighth notes and six­teenth notes, but Fen­ton is singing music totally dif­fer­ent from every­one else on stage. Verdi knew that when a young man falls in love for the first time, it com­pletely knocks him into an entirely new world.  It is some­thing out­side the exis­tence he has known, he is totally unpre­pared for it and he often becomes obliv­i­ous to what’s going on around him. “She whose sweet love my heart is mur­mur­ing, bright­est love! We will be like a con­stel­la­tion shim­mer­ing, two hearts united as one,” Fen­ton rhap­sodizes in long arch­ing phrases, soar­ing over the hub­bub of the rest of the char­ac­ters. In one per­fect stroke Verdi pays trib­ute to an ele­ment of bel canto opera, defines Fenton’s char­ac­ter and reminds us how sweet, and how fleet­ing, young love is.

The ado­les­cent love bun­dle,” is how Charles Osborne summed up Nanette and Fen­ton. Verdi and Boito bring back the young lovers in each of the three acts, con­trast­ing their hon­est, fresh, true love with Falstaff’s heavy-handed, over-the-top comic woo­ing. But even the wel­comed moments of lyric repose the young lovers offer, in the midst of the opera’s gen­eral hilar­ity, are just “a taste.” They never have a proper love duet and Fen­ton never gets a com­plete aria.

I like that love of theirs, it serves to make the whole com­edy more fresh and more solid,” Boito wrote to Verdi. “So it is point­less to have them sing a gen­uine duet together by them­selves. Their part, even with­out the duet, will be very effec­tive, indeed, it will be even more effec­tive with­out. I don’t quite know how to explain myself: I would like to sprin­kle the whole com­edy with that light­hearted love, like pow­dered sugar on a cake, with­out col­lect­ing it in one point.”

Pas­tas are never swamped by sauce,” Mar­cella Hazan warns the ama­teur cook. “Por­tions are never so swollen in size as to tax our capac­ity for enjoyment.”

Verdi knew that. And in Fal­staff he pre­sented us with an oper­atic ban­quet that sums up the his­tory of Ital­ian opera, by giv­ing us a series of tastes and fla­vors. He has done it so mas­ter­fully that the more we know about opera, the more we are in awe of his feast and the more we enjoy it.  But it is so tasty that even a novice can delight in it. And isn’t that one def­i­n­i­tion of a True Masterpiece?

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2002.