Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff—with its quicksilver ensembles and vivid characterizations—is a celebration of living in the moment, says director Robert Carsen, who brought a new production of the opera to the Met in 2013. By Ellen Keel
Caught up in his enthusiasm as he was composing Falstaff, Verdi—who was pushing 80 at the time—declared that he had longed to write a comic opera for 40 years. It’s an intriguing thought, in light of the unparalleled output of searing tragedies that came before it. The librettist Arrigo Boito had tempted the composer out of semi-retirement by appealing, as he had several years earlier with Otello, to his veneration of William Shakespeare. But this time, Verdi delighted his fans by demonstrating that—like Shakespeare—he could use his well-honed sense of dramatic timing and his keen understanding of human nature to entertain as well as to move.
Robert Carsen, who directed the Met’s new production during the 2013–14 season, is no stranger to the Verdi–Shakespeare alchemy, having previously directed both Macbeth and Otello, in addition to Falstaff. He hails this final masterpiece, which premiered in 1893, as a social comedy, finding it unique among Verdi’s operas not only for its humor, but for its way of portraying a whole community, with vivid characters representing different classes and ages. “You’re aware all the time of the position, the point of view, and the fun that is involved for all of the people who are plotting one way or another—there’s always something going on.”
One reason for the work’s enduring success is the indelibly drawn title character. It was Boito, in fact, who decided to take a fresh look at Sir John Falstaff, basing him not merely on the buffoon from The Merry Wives of Windsor, as other librettists had before him, but also drawing upon the wittier, more charismatic figure from the two Henry IV plays. Thus, while the opera’s story does depict Falstaff’s humiliation at the hands of the women he tries to woo, he retains a certain force-of-nature grandeur that grounds the hijinks. Boito also went back and looked at the sources that had inspired Shakespeare, and he and Verdi were full of patriotic glee to discover that many plot elements were derived from Italian Renaissance literature. Carsen nevertheless appreciates the essential Britishness of the opera, and he and his team—including set designer Paul Steinberg, costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting designer Peter Van Praet—adhere to the original location for the setting. But Carsen wanted a more modern time period that would reflect the story’s sense of an aristocracy on the wane, so he chose the 1950s, when England was recovering from World War II and a newly prosperous middle class was on the rise.
Verdi’s only other comedy was his second opera, Un Giorno di Regno, written more than 50 years before Falstaff. The twenty-something operas that came after it cover a vast range of moods and colors, but only a few offer anything more than a moment of comic relief (though it’s worth noting that those instances are deftly accomplished). Boito was also relatively new to comedy, but—drawing perhaps upon his own experience as a composer—he crafted a libretto whose joyfully poetic wordplay and richness of atmosphere practically cried out for music. “Boito’s text is incredible,” Carsen says, “and Verdi was very clearly influenced by this remarkable textual achievement. The texture of all these ensembles and all the voices together creates an amazing sense of life.”
Particular elements of this life stand out to Carsen—such as food and drink, which he features in every scene of the production. As he explains, “It’s an opera that celebrates not just eating and drinking, but community—it’s much more fun when we eat and drink together.” He also plays with the opera’s frequent references to hunting; while it’s used most obviously as a metaphor for wooing women, its status as an outmoded aristocratic pastime also appeals to Carsen, who likes to quote Oscar Wilde’s description: “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”
Verdi claimed that he composed Falstaff as a diversion. Whether or not he truly felt released from public and critical expectations by this point in his career, the music’s free-flowing ease is utterly infectious. Melody upon melody comes flooding out with the momentum of a great finale. Though it features even fewer show-stopping moments than the verismo operas that were beginning to be popular around that time, each character is able to shine brightly.
And when it came to his cast, Verdi passed over singers with a more languid bel canto style in favor of those who excelled at musical precision and crisp diction, in addition to displaying good comic energy—though many of them had initially proven themselves to him in dramatic repertoire. For instance, his Falstaff, the baritone Victor Maurel, had created the role of Iago in Otello as well as the title role in the revised version of Simon Boccanegra (another collaboration with Boito). The Met’s Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri, has similarly impressed audiences in both tragedy and comedy, starring at the Met in Donizetti’s farces L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale as well as in serious roles in Aida and Cavalleria Rusticana. The superb ensemble cast also featured mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who has long been a favorite in the role of the mischievous Mistress Quickly, and soprano Angela Meade, who got to introduce her comic side to Met audiences as Alice Ford, the ringleader of the merry wives.
If Verdi’s tragedies often feature characters struggling against the inevitability of fate, Falstaff is about accepting fate—getting old, losing social status and sexual desirability, losing control over one’s children—with good humor and grace. It is poignant to think of Verdi writing this opera at a point when the loss of longtime friends and colleagues regularly reminded him of his own mortality. Boito suggested to him that comedy would be less draining than tragedy. And Carsen marvels that “Verdi, at the end of this extraordinary life, was able to write something so fresh, so effervescent, but yet with this knowledge that, at a certain moment, the party’s over. All of that is in this work. It is essentially a celebration of life and of living in the moment. And it’s particularly touching that such a great man was able to bid farewell to the theater with such joy and such generosity.”
Ellen Keel is the Met’s Senior Radio Producer.