“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.
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.
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.