Falstaff: When Verdi Found His Inner Comedian

Monday, July 02, 2012

"I don’t think Verdi had much of a sense of humor," F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News tells us. "His life was marked by tragedy early on." His two children died in infancy and his first wife whom he loved deeply died shortly after at the young age of 26. "He was a very, very serious man."

And yet, at the time of his wife’s death, Verdi was writing his second opera, Un giorno di regno, which happened to be a comedy about a man who is "King for a Day." Not surprisingly, the premiere was a failure, and Verdi didn’t try his hand at comedy again until the end of his career – after 23 more operas and at the age of 80 – with Falstaff

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s "The Merry Wives of Windsor" which was written – they say – at the behest of Elizabeth I who loved the character of Plump Jack or the Fat Knight in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and wanted more. The librettist Arrigo Boito adapted the play for Verdi to set to music. And though The Merry Wives of Windsor comes very close to being a situation comedy, Driscoll makes it clear that Falstaff is not a sitcom.

"Falstaff gives you these wonderful moments that expand on what Shakespeare had set forth and it makes it a bigger work,” he said. It’s often described as “an autumnal comedy... with a certain warmth and color that has the flavor of Verdi’s age and reflects the fact that he’s at a place where he’s perhaps not happy, but a little bit more content."

F. Paul Driscoll on why conductors love Falstaff  

Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera and one of his greatest. His gifts as a “supreme melodist” and as a composer who is able to “capture within a few phrases the essence of a man or woman’s soul” are in full force in the piece. And in "Falstaff the man," Driscoll explains Verdi creates a character who is “absolutely irresistible – a rascal and a thief whom you’d love to spend time with. Whether you’re sitting down having a drink together or listening to him sing for a couple of hours, he’s a delightful companion.”

F. Paul Driscoll on the director’s challenge in staging Falstaff

Driscoll calls Falstaff’s final fugue “the most joyous piece of music that Verdi ever wrote.” And though he feels sure that Verdi could have written more opera over the course of his final eight years, he thinks that Verdi “wanted to go out on a high... and that’s what he did!”

F. Paul Driscoll on Falstaff




by Giuseppe Verdi

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare's fictional character Sir John Falstaff, a fat, conniving old drunk who lies and cheats with captivating charisma and a contagious zest for life

F. Paul Driscoll on baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff  

Watch: Bryn Terfel as Sir John Falstaff sings the Honor aria at the 2008 BBC Proms:

As the opera begins, Falstaff – ever short of cash – has devised a plan to woo two wealthy women (both of whom are married) at the same time. The ladies quickly uncover his plan and create one of their own. 

One of the women, Alice Ford, enlists her husband, her daughter and several friends to help avenge the family honor. Falstaff is lured into their trap and summarily dumped into the River Thames. 

But the portly knight doesn’t give up so easily. 

Warned of evil spirits in Windsor Park, he accepts an intriguing invitation from Alice to join in a midnight masquerade. Dressed as creatures of the forest Alice’s cast of friends torment Falstaff until he begs for mercy. 

• Watch: Anna Moffo in Falstaff as the Queen of the Fairies

When they finally unmask, Falstaff laughs and admits that he deserved the punishment saying life is a charade and that he who laughs last, laughs best!

F. Paul Driscoll on Tito Gobbi and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf  in Falstaff 

• Listen: Tito Gobbi and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the Falstaff finale


F. Paul Driscoll and Tristan Kraft

Produced by:

Margaret Kelley and Midge Woolsey


Brian Wise


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Comments [3]


where's the edit button? "should have nothing" not "shouldn't have nothing"

Jul. 05 2012 12:15 PM

Great harmonies and orchestrations, but Verdi was far from being the "supreme melodist" in Falstaff. Try whistling one single tune from the opera, you can't.

Comedies are supposed to make the audience laugh, not exactly the case with Falstaff, I sat through it twice, the humor is far from universal. There's a disconnect between the English source and the composer, which didn't happen in Otello and Macebth. Comedy wasn't for Verdi. Elisir d'Amore, Don Pasquale and Barbiere di Siviglia remain the supreme comedies of all opera. Gianni Schicchi a close second.

Also, the state of mind of a composer shouldn't have nothing to do with the nature of the composition, Donizetti had a more tragic life than Verdi's, was alone, slowly dying of syphilis and suffering from blinding headaches when he wrote Don Pasquale.

Jul. 05 2012 12:13 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

At the beginning of the Third Act, when Falstaff recovers from his dousing and says "Mondo ladro---mondo rubaldo. Reo mondo!" World of thieves, world of cheats...world of crime!" with only the clarinets, bassoons, horns and trombones underscoring, I'm always so moved. I think it's one of the supreme moments in all opera. And to end the opera as philosophically and joyously as it does in that fugue makes me wonder if it mirrors Verdi's thoughts as well. "Everyone gets cheated", as it's sung in the fugue. I know it's usually faulty to assume a composer has to be in the same mood or feel the same as his characters, or when writing symphonies or anything else, for that matter, but I can't help but feel that in this case in "Falstaff." Falstaff and Verdi have really "been there" when it comes to life. Another marvel is Falstaff's counting the chimes until midnight at Hern's Oak: only stringswith chords of the thirteenth and the chime in F. I don't think Verdi ever used that kind of harmony previously. Is that correct? It's just magical. I know he used the "Enigmatic Scale" in one of his "Four Sacred Pieces". The vocal examples you give are superb. For me, Toscanini's NBC Symphony broadcasts in 1950 and his Salzburg performance from 1937 spoil it for me, but the recordings by Solti, Levine and Giulini really hit the mark for me, too.

Jul. 05 2012 09:25 AM

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About Opera in Brief

Host Midge Woolsey and F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News, offer a primer on operas of the past and present.