The Dazzling Success of Falstaff: Rehearsals, Premiere, Worldwide Tour
This deep dive essay is an example of “reception history,” a research method that uses primary sources to decipher how people evaluated (or “received”) works of art when they were first created. By tracing the history of a work’s creation and reception, we can learn much about the priorities and aesthetic ideals of the time and place that produced the art we consume today.
Having composed Otello and Macbeth—based on two of Shakespeare’s most calamitous tragedies—Verdi’s turn to Falstaff marked a curious shift back to comic opera, for the first time since the disastrous premiere of Un Giorno di Regno in 1840. Since comedy was considered a low-brow, popular art by the audiences of the time, this artistic shift certainly bore a degree of risk. Yet Verdi’s intuition (and decades of experience as Italy’s most celebrated opera composer) did not fail him: As the Milanese newspaper L’Italia del Popolo reported on February 10, 1893, the premiere attracted a dazzling audience, filling the theater boxes with “colors, reflections, and splendors.”
Verdi’s opera was certainly a worthy object of acclaim, yet Falstaff’s early success was also due to a masterful publicity campaign. First and foremost, the opera owed its triumph to Giulio Ricordi, the editor of Casa Ricordi (the publishing house that printed Verdi’s later operas and a longtime champion of Verdi’s work). Having secured exclusive rights to Falstaff, Ricordi invested heavily in the opera’s production and, a stickler for detail, he spared no expenses to ensure that the staging of Falstaff was historically accurate. He paid Adolfo Hohenstein, the renowned set and costume designer, to take an expansive trip to London, Windsor, and Paris to collect drawings of 15th-century clothing, architecture, furniture, and kitchenware. Hohenstein’s oil and watercolor “bozzetti” (sketches) are preserved at the Casa Ricordi archives. Ricordi also pursued a clever marketing strategy and oversaw the extensive array of media publicity leading up to the premiere, as well as documenting its laudatory reception across the world.
The management of La Scala, the theater in which the opera was created, meanwhile, took the unusual step of increasing ticket prices for Falstaff’s premiere, rendering it an exclusive event not accessible to the ordinary folk, who usually made up an important portion of the operatic audience. Whereas a ticket in the main floor typically cost five lire, the price was now inflated to a staggering 150 lire. Nonetheless, Verdi’s fame ensured that the house sold out, and the audience began to line up for the premiere as early as 9:30AM. Among those present were aristocrats, officials, artists, and famed composers, among them Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini. Verdi himself appeared on the stage at the end of each act, cheered by the enthusiastic exclamations of “Viva! Viva Verdi!” As was customary at the time, encores of favored numbers were performed (the women’s quartet from Act I and Falstaff’s “Quand’ero paggio” from Act II). When Verdi returned to the Hotel Milan, nearly 4,000 admirers awaited him outside. The composer, alongside his librettist Arrigo Boito, appeared on the balcony to greet the exuberant crowd.
The success of the premiere continued into the latter half of the 1890s: After 22 performances at La Scala, Falstaff received accolades during worldwide performances in Genoa, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, Prague, St. Petersburg, Paris, and, of course, at the Metropolitan Opera, where the opera was first performed on February 4, 1895.