Chicago — For the past many summers, I’ve hosted a public-interview series at the Salzburg Festival. Last summer, one of our guests was Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian conductor. He was conducting Verdi’s opera Il trovatore at the festival. We talked about that opera, of course, and others by Verdi.
Because I thought it would be interesting to Noseda, and to the audience, I made a confession: Though I acknowledged Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, as a masterpiece — and something unique in the world — I had never been able to warm up to it. Could he help me?
Noseda spoke very interestingly on the subject, which led me to bring up Così fan tutte, the Mozart opera. That’s another one I have sometimes balked at. And Così and Falstaff are related, in several ways. Moreover, they happen to be the favorite operas of Riccardo Muti, the famed Italian conductor, now the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
At the end of the summer, I wrote a little journal about the festival, including my conversation with Noseda. By e-mail, I got a note from Maestro Muti’s chief of staff, Emily Master, explaining that the CSO would perform Falstaff the next April, as part of a Shakespeare celebration. The world would be marking the 400th anniversary of the writer’s death. Would I care to come to Chicago, to observe Muti in rehearsal, and talk with him, and maybe warm up to Falstaff?
Sure. Here I am.
“Allora,” says Muti, beginning his final rehearsal of the opera. (“So.”) The conductor’s famous head of hair shows some gray now, but he looks essentially as he did when I first saw him, in about 1980. He tells the orchestra that the opening measures must be “like a spring,” bubbling forth — and that’s how they come out. Muti does not say much to the orchestra or the singers in this final rehearsal. But what he does say tends to emphasize liveliness and character. Every note and word must be invested with life and meaning.
He sings a bit on this afternoon, and sings well. He is renowned as a solfèger — a user of the do-re-mi system — and it’s clear why.
Out in the seats, there is a guest far more important than any visiting critic: Pau Gasol, the Spanish-born star of the Chicago Bulls. He is a gracious guest, all 7 feet of him. At breaks, he poses for pictures with his fans in the orchestra, and in the cast. He is a fan of theirs, too.
Verdi began work on Falstaff in 1889, when he was 75. His librettist was Arrigo Boito, whom we also know as a composer — of Mefistofele, the only opera he finished. Falstaff is based on the three plays in which Shakespeare placed that “fat knight”: The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, both parts. Sir John Falstaff is a buffoon, of course. Or is he?
Verdi took his time on the opera, much to the consternation of Boito, who kept asking where it was. Maybe Verdi would die before completing it? Verdi mentioned this possibility himself. He did not seem overly concerned, either, about whether Falstaff would see the light of day. It did — having its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in early 1893. Verdi would soon turn 80.
The audience liked Falstaff, sort of, but it liked Verdi a lot more, roaring for this lion. The opera, frankly, confused them. It was unlike the 27 other operas that had come from this composer’s pen. To begin with, it had no overture. And it proved to be through-composed, pretty much — an opera without arias, duets, and other such pieces to applaud. The characters just sang — more like talked — straight through.
Also, there was the texture of the opera: light, intricate, effervescent, grazioso. There was almost none of the grandeur of, say, Aida, with its elephants. Falstaff was fat, but fleet.
Falstaff was not a hit with the public, but it was a hit with Arturo Toscanini. In the first half of the 20th century, this conductor would champion the work, loving it deeply and understanding it thoroughly. (The two amount to the same thing, I think.) Other conductors have been similarly devoted to Falstaff: Herbert von Karajan, for one. James Levine, for another. And, of course, the starry, superb maestro sitting next to me at breakfast here in Chicago.
Muti recounts how he learned Falstaff — from his teacher, Antonino Votto. The veteran maestro knew the work cold. He could have written it down from first page to last, if called on to do so. Young Muti asked him, “Maestro, how is it possible that you know this opera so well?” Votto answered, “You would too, if you had worked with him.” The him in question was Toscanini. Votto was his assistant during the 1920s.
Toscanini charged him with teaching the title role to Mariano Stabile, who would become the outstanding Falstaff in history. Votto worked with him for six months. Then they went to Toscanini’s home, to audition. Toscanini said, “Fine, you are right for the part. Now go work on it for another six months. Then come back.”
That was a different era, as Muti notes. Today, a leading singer may waltz in for the final rehearsal. “That’s the reason we have so many problems with superficial performances, and performances that are not really accurate. The conductors have lost authority.”
Falstaff relates to Verdi’s life, says Muti. It’s an extremely personal work. For 50 years, Verdi had written operas for the public — on commission, on deadline, etc. This one was for him, for his own purposes. He was feeling morose at this stage of life. He had had his glory, but he had also faced much criticism. Wagner had captured the fancy of the so-called intellectuals in Italy; they regarded Verdi as provincial and passé. Who was he, who could write only simple melodies with an oompah-pah accompaniment?
He answered his critics in Falstaff, which brims with compositional sophistication. It both borrows from the past and points toward the future.
These days, says Muti, we speak the name “Verdi” with reverence. He is perpetually on a pedestal. But, in his autumn years, he feared that he had wasted his life, writing operas that had no value. He was born a peasant, he said, and he would die one, out in the country, where he lived (though in an elegant villa). At the end of Falstaff, we get an ensemble that declares, “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” i.e., “Everything in the world is a joke, a trick, a big fat farce. Nothing matters, and you can’t trust anyone.” Falstaff is regarded as a comedy, which it surely is. But it’s also laced with pain — and Muti sees the opera as more sad than happy.
“Guilty, rotten world!” says Falstaff, when the “merry wives” have dumped him into the Thames. “There is no longer virtue. Everything declines. Go, old John. Be on your way. Keep walking till you die.” That is Verdi, says Muti: That is how Verdi felt. “I insist, because I have dedicated my life to this composer, that Falstaff is Verdi, in all aspects.”
The opera is not without loveliness, as Muti says. Take the love music between Anne and Fenton: young, innocent, fresh. Verdi could write music expressing all sorts of love, as Muti details (and sings!). The erotic, as in Un ballo in maschera. The jealous, as in Otello. In Falstaff, when he is nearing 80, Verdi looks back to a kind of first love.
When you dig into it, this opera offers complexity upon complexity, says Muti.
Does conducting it give him pleasure? “Sì, molto,” he says. It gives him a lot. But only if you have singers and an orchestra that can handle the opera. “At La Scala, I could do Falstaff without moving my fingers.” Muti was capo of that company. “They had worked with me for so many years, through so many rehearsals.” But when the Vienna State Opera asked him to come and conduct Falstaff there — as it did several times — Muti said no. Because there would not be enough time to get it right.
And with his Chicagoans, he has had enough time, after six years of his music directorship, which has included plenty of Verdi.
In Falstaff, we have the real McCoy, says Muti: the real Verdi. His genuine self comes through. And “Falstaff is very much like Mozart,” adds Muti. When Verdi was writing Falstaff, he had at his bedside three sets of scores: the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Mozart’s critics said that he lacked the skill to write a fugue (if you can imagine). And what do we find at the end of the last movement of the symphony that turned out to be his last? A grand fugue. And what do we find at the end of Verdi’s last opera? “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” a fugue.
Near the end of our breakfast, I ask Muti, “Is Falstaff a perfect opera, in your opinion? Is there anything wrong with it?” He answers, “I’m nobody to make such a judgment, but, for me, it’s perfect.” I then tell him I want to ask a heretical question. It’s about his other favorite opera, Così fan tutte. “Is Act II too long?” “Sì,” says Muti, immediately. “The first act is perfect. The second act is beautiful, but at a certain point it does not find a way to end.”
I should have a showdown with Così, someday, but it will have to wait. For now, I can’t stop listening to, and thinking about, and loving, Falstaff.