The Comical in Verdi’s Music

“Though I greatly admire Verdi,” wrote Gioachino Rossini, “I believe him to be incapable of writing a comic opera.” Coming from the most esteemed Italian opera composer, these words caused Verdi much distress. Furthermore, after the embarrassing flop of Verdi’s first attempt at comic opera, 1840’s Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), it took him more than 50 years to give comedy another chance. “After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines,” he wryly observed, “I have at last the right to laugh a little.” The result was an instant success. Verdi’s score, full of wit and buoyancy, renders the already hilarious plot even more whimsical and conclusively proves Rossini wrong.

Not surprisingly, much of the comedic effect of the music revolves around the opera’s chief mischief-maker. In Act II, Scene 2, Falstaff appears at Ford’s house to declare his passion to Alice. The scene begins with the baritone Falstaff singing in the high register of an enamored lyrical tenor (MOoD Track 21). Verdi cleverly sets Falstaff’s confession to Alice, “Alfin t’ho colto raggiante fior” (“At last I pick you, radiant flower”), to a guitar accompaniment. This instrumental setting tackles two goals at once: It alludes to serenading and recreates a historical Shakespearean soundscape by mimicking the timbre of a lute.

As Falstaff continues praising Alice, Verdi changes the tone of the music to convey the insincerity of the protagonist’s intentions. The initial lyrical mood gives way to a more upbeat tone, with short, motivic, turning figures that resemble bursts of laughter. As if this were not funny enough, Verdi accompanies this excerpt with the mocking timbre of not one, but two bassoons. The scene culminates with Falstaff’s “Quand’ero paggio” (“When I was page”) (MOoD Track 22). Here, Falstaff tries to impress Alice by recalling his youthful days when he served as a page to the Duke of Norfolk (a passage taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV). To highlight the comic and, most certainly, unrealistic nature of this story, Verdi borrows musical tools from the master of Italian opera buffa—Rossini himself. Sir John sings a lively, staccato line, marked leggerissimo (very light) and accompanied by a crude ‘oom-pah’ accompaniment with a brisk “allegro con brio” (fast with spirit) tempo marking. His voice now sounds nothing like a lyrical baritone. Instead, its overly articulated quick repeated notes create a true Rossinian comic bass effect (like the part of Dr. Bartolo from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia). This amusing scene was so important to Verdi that within the predominantly uninterrupted musical drama he wrote “Quand’ero paggio” in a short ternary musical form (ABA¹), giving the aria a self-contained structure that would allow performers to encore and excerpt it.