The last laugh

Article by Ashutosh Khandekar

Does a life’s work necessarily have a pattern? Or do we overload the late works of creative geniuses with significance? We think: is that Mozart writing his own Requiem? – and: aren’t we in the company of Richard Strauss himself in the Four Last Songs, contemplating his final, blazing sunset?

Beethoven, mentally fragmented and deaf, sums up his life with the ‘Difficult Question’, the last movement of his final string quartet.  “Must it be?” he scrawls across the score at the top of the slow opening bars… and as the music gallops off, the composer affirms: “It must be!”

Verdi’s last opera has no sense of a terminal exclamation mark, nor of a life-force ebbing away.  The score is a heady mix of adrenalin and hormones, and the apparently banal conclusion it draws about existence, in a whimsical twist on melancholy Jaques’s soliloquy in As You Like It, is: “All the world’s a joke” – “Tutto nel mondo è burla”.  The fugue that ends Falstaff with such a giddy flourish was in fact the first number that Verdi wrote when he set about composing the opera; its soaring scales and chattering rhythms are like musical guffaws, the source of the general hilarity that infuses the score of Falstaff and make the work such a startling conclusion to the œuvre of a man who spent much of his time pondering the appalling absurdities of life.

If Verdi’s artistic trajectory had been consistent, his final opera should have been Shakespeare’s King Lear –a long, nihilistic howl, with Lear alone on a bleak, windswept heath, it would have put the perfect period to a career largely devoted to evoking the misery of the human condition.

Re Lear had been a long time in the planning, and Antonio Somma (librettist of Un ballo in maschera) had completed the libretto in the mid-1850s.  Verdi’s young friend Pietro Mascagni (composer of Cavalleria rusticana and Zanetto), later told a rather misty-eyed story of how Verdi, years after he’d written Falstaff, offered a “vast amount of material” on Lear to the young composer, “to make a heavy task lighter…”

Asked why Verdi hadn’t written the opera himself, the old man replied: “That scene with Lear alone on the heath completely terrified me!”

Death is rarely far away in Verdi’s operas.  You can smell it in Act 2 of Un ballo in maschera, upon the ‘orrido campo’ where the hangman’s gibbet looms.  You can feel its anguish in Desdemona’s great prayer at the end of Otello when she knows she is about to die.  You sense its zeal in the auto-da-fè of Don Carlo, and its hopelessness as Aida and Radamès suffocate in their living tomb.  Yet unlike the terror and catharsis that characterises Shakespeare’s classical approach to tragedy, Verdi’s tragic muse is governed by a profound sense of fatalism.

Verdi’s early creative life was dogged by death.  While composing his first comedy, Un giorno di regno, his son, daughter and then his wife died.  The opera ended up being a total flop at its premiere in 1840.  It’s hardly surprising, perhaps, that Verdi was put off comedy almost for life.  And yet there is a comic undertow to Verdi’s music that seems to keep tragic excess in check.  Even when his minor keys strike a note of despair, there’s usually a modulation or a resolution in a major key that suggests a sense of shoulder-shrugging resignation at whatever life throws at you.

It was certainly this sense of fatalism rather than tragedy that Verdi brought to the fore in his first Shakespearean essay, Macbeth.  He was attracted by the phantasmagorical aspects of the play, the witches and Duncan’s ghost.  The inescapable grip of destiny, and the idea that life is propelled by forces of superstition rather than religion, are themes that particularly obsessed the composer.  Often in his operas, the agents of destiny and death, far from appearing sinister, are wreathed in a grotesque sort of musical black comedy.  In Macbeth the rumpty-tumpty jauntiness of the Witches’ choruses was easily parodied by Arthur Sullivan in the Savoy operas, whenever he needed to conjure up the music for a chorus of overbearing aunties or naughty schoolgirls.  Even Verdi’s great mystics are prone to farcical hyperbole: Azucena, the careless gypsy mother of Il trovatore, throws the wrong child on the sacrificial pyre.  Ulrica, the necromancer in Un ballo in maschera, invokes the devil along with rattlesnakes and magic herbs in the dingy suburbs of Stockholm (or Boston).  Preziosilla, the effusive fortune-teller of La forza del destino, wills soldiers to their death with a jaunty battle-song.

Forza is, of course, a very explicit exploration of the tragicomic – and random, chaotic – nature of fate: life unfolds at cross-purposes, coincidences pile up, vows are broken, misunderstandings abound and finally the whole scenario unravels in tragedy.  “Tutto nel mondo è burla” could just as easily apply to the sick-joke absurdities of this opera.  This is perhaps where Verdi comes closest to Shakespeare’s “Life’s… a tale told by an idiot…”

Even in his tragic mode, Verdi’s music seems to strain at comedy.  Otello is the great exception.  His penultimate opera is perhaps the closest he ever got, musically, to Shakespeare.  Lear would have been the natural continuation, but as the century itself was coming to a close, illness, decrepitude and death were all around Verdi.  His great friend and only pupil Emanuele Muzio died in 1890; another conductor, Franco Faccio, a great champion of Verdi’s work, expired after an ignominious period of insanity that distressed the composer greatly.  Perhaps a comic opera was just what he needed to cheer him up.

Verdi was quick to accept Boito’s suggestion of Falstaff, and it seems curious that, with so many comic plays by Shakespeare at his disposal, Verdi took on an ungainly hybrid of a comic libretto that amalgamated one of Shakespeare’s weakest pieces of writing (The Merry Wives of Windsor) with gobbets from the great Henry IV plays.  Verdi always spoke of his reverence for Shakespeare, but his treatment of Falstaff seems on the face of it oddly ill-fitting as a summation of a lifelong literary obsession.

Perhaps the clue to the composer’s desire at the end of his life to write an opera based on a comedy of sexual manners lies in the sequence and timing of Verdi’s three final operas, and the personal circumstances that surrounded their creation.  Ever since the premiere of Oberto in 1839, Verdi had produced a new opera every one to three years.  As his reputation grew, he became one of the richest and most successful composers in the world, and was revered as a national hero in Italy.  But following the premiere of Aida, his 26th opera, Verdi fell into despair.

The ostensible reason was the media circus that surrounded the work’s premiere in Cairo.  In response to a letter from the famous critic Filippo Filippi offering his help publicising the new work, he wrote: “I think that art like this is no longer art, but rather a piece of commerce, a pleasurable game… an everyday event that people want to be filled with sensation, whatever the cost! I feel disgusted and humiliated by it all!”

“Disgust and humiliation” are curiously strong reactions to too much publicity.  What was all that fuss really about? Perhaps one of the reasons that Verdi almost gave up on opera after Aida was because of his feelings for Teresa Stolz, one of leading sopranos of the day, who gave the Italian premiere of the role of Aida at La Scala.  There has been endless speculation as to whether the relationship was actually a consummated affair, but that’s really beside the point.  What seems clear is that around the time of Aida, Verdi’s passion for Stolz began to overtake him.  Here he was, a man on the brink of 60, rediscovering how it felt to be in love again and with a woman 20 years his junior.  The seeds of Falstaff were sown.

Verdi was obsessed with secrecy in all things and was terrified of revelation.  The public scrutiny that he so loathed around Aida was surely connected with coming to terms with his sexual feelings for Stolz.  The disgust and humiliation he felt was with himself.  He was a married man and his wife Giuseppina Strepponi was consumed by suspicion and jealousy: “Sixteen letters!! In such a short time!! How busy!” she once wrote tartly on a packet of letters from Stolz.

The year of Aida, 1871, was also the year when Rome was declared the capital of a united Italy.  Verdi, aged 58, resolved that he would never again write an opera.  It wasn’t the first time he’d made such a resolution, but this time he kept his word for longer than ever before: “My piano is nailed shut,” he would pronounce if anybody asked.  It was as if he felt finally absolved of the responsibility of representing the political sensibility of an entire nation.  No longer the cultural standard-bearer of Italian unification, the Risorgimento, he was finally freed to create for his own pleasure.

Verdi’s relationship with Falstaff was personal.  He wrote the opera for himself, and with a musical energy that seems to unfold for the sheer hell of it.  “I am writing without any plan or goal, just to pass a few hours of the day.”  In Falstaff’s celebration of love and sex, real feelings are finally out in the open.  Censorship and public scrutiny are bumped out of the way: although it has to be conducted in secret, there is nothing sordid or complicated about the love of Nannetta and Fenton.  Musically it shines out sweetly from the tittle-tattle and intrigue of Windsor’s petty-bourgeoisie in long, radiantly-spun lines of melody.

Verdi (a non-English speaker) wasn’t particularly inspired in his operas by Shakespeare’s poetry – he usually insisted that his librettists hack away at the text to let the musical message through with clarity.  More likely, he identified with Shakespeare the man: humbly-born, immersed in the traditions of theatre and possessed of a creative imagination that encapsulated the spirit of a nation.

Shakespeare – more so than Verdi, in fact – drew his inspiration from the literature that shaped Italy, the culture of the Classical world.  He freely borrowed from the writings of Plutarch, Plautus and Ovid, and added flashes of Petrarch, Dante, and above all Boccaccio and his bawdy Decameron, a work full of stories of old men lusting after young girls and suffering the consequences.

Through the bawdy comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi could explore with a light heart a subject approached in dark, moralistic terms in all his other works: the joy and the absurdity of sex, from the young, unsullied passion of Fenton and Nannetta to the jealousy of Ford and the preening impotence of Falstaff himself.  In the best traditions of the commedia dell’arte and its low punning, it’s irresistible to point up the contrast between the priapic shake spear, creator of the sabre-rattling Henry IV plays, and the flaccid fall staff of his flawed hero’s last appearance.

The Sir John of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a study in sexual hubris.  He may say he’s after the Merry Wives for their money, but at the root of his actions lies his sexual vanity.  He is what Don Giovanni would have become had he not kept his appointment with perdition and slid into a portly dotage.  Verdi had fun writing Falstaff.  In his letters to Boito, the opera is personified as “Il pancione” – “The Big Belly” – who craves constant feeding and runs riot thorough the composer’s sedate existence: “There are some days when [Big Belly] doesn’t budge, he sleeps and is in a bad mood; on other days, he shouts, runs, jumps, tears the place apart; I give him some slack, but if he goes on like this, I’ll have to put him in muzzle and chains.”

In Falstaff, Verdi was returning to a musical style full of playful wit and lightly-worn invention that the Italians seemed to have mislaid in the long and anguished struggle for political identity.  He was also looking ahead to the new Belle Époque, the Gilded Age when optimism reigned and even Wagner and his gloomy world-prognosis seemed momentarily put aside.

At a more personal level, Verdi was coming to terms with his earthy origins: born into a family of humble innkeepers, he had risen to embody a nation and its struggles.  As a result he had had to construct a persona that concealed much about himself and his fallibilities.  Lean, driven and energetic as an old man, Verdi in his final work identifies with his antithesis: a fat, lazy, lascivious old scoundrel – but one who beneath all his various masks is “eternamente vero”: eternally true.

Ashutosh Khandekar is editor of Opera Now magazine.