September 8, 2013

Falstaff: Three - count 'em! - three speeches on Honor

Despite what is sometimes said about Verdi's Falstaff, it is not lacking in arias, Nannetta's exquisite solo "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" being the loveliest example.

Even so, there is no doubt that the composer was happy to follow Shakespeare's lead and provide Ford and Falstaff, the two leading baritone roles, with soliloquies in place of formal arias. This was hardly new territory for Verdi, who had given magnificent soliloquies to Otello, Iago, Macbeth and Rigoletto in his early, middle and late periods.
Victor Maurel, who create the role of
Falstaff for the world premiere.

Though I dearly love Sir John's Act 3 monologue about wine ("Mondo ladro, mondo rubaldo") and always get a thrill from Ford's "Dream" soliloquy in Act 2, scene 1, it's Falstaff's "Honor" soliloquy in Act 1, scene 1 we'll examine in this post.

This passage, as brilliant in orchestration as it is in the setting of the text, also shows us the exceptional achievement of Arrigo Boito's libretto. As many are aware, Boito's problem in adapting Shakespeare's Falstaffian play The Merry Wives of Windsor  for the opera stage was that... 

...it isn't a very good play. Sad to say, but there it is. To meet the Bard's Falstaff in all his glorious originality and genius, one must encounter him in the two Henry IV plays, both parts 1 and 2 (1597 and 1598). There, Falstaff is the magnificent rogue ranking among the great figures of the stage. However, he is a supporting character only. Merry Wives was hastily written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I in 1599. Approaching his task like a student grinding out a required book report, Shakespeare threw together a stock comedy in which Falstaff loses all his wit, irony, and individualism. He's just the typical foolish would-be lover of low comedy.

What Boito did was to transform this low comedy into something worthy of Shakespeare, putting the plot of Merry Wives and choice elements from the Henry plays into a literary Cuisinart. The frothy mix that resulted restored Sir John's greatness and gave Verdi the miraculous give of a perfect, flawless libretto.

This required deftness. The Honor speech comes from Act V, scene 1 of Henry IV, part 1. Falstaff and his boon drinking buddy Prince Hal, the heir to Henry's throne, have been compelled to fight against the armed forces attempting to revolt against the king. Falstaff's "contribution" has been to avoid any hint of danger, looking out for his own safety at all costs. When Hal calls him on it, saying "Thous owest God a death", Falstaff derides the very notion of heroism and honor (you can see a performance at this link):

Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.


You are Arrigo Boito; you love, love, love this speech and can't imagine your opera without it. But here's a bummer: the Falstaff of the opera is a senior citizen; his soldiering days are behind him and there's no war in progress. Boito's solution was to transplant the scenario from "Sir John the warrior" to "Sir John the lover". Attempting to coerce his cronies Bardolfo and Pistola to aid and abet him in the scheme to deliver identical love letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page, he is stunned and outraged when they decline to play mailman, saying their honor forbids it. Now Boito has found the opening he needed to transplant a slightly altered version of the soliloquy into this completely different dramatic context. Here's Boito's version in English (and here's a link to a video):


You mountebank. I myself, yes, I must sometimes
set the fear of God aside and get around honor out of necessity;
use strategems and deceits, maneuver, tack.
And you, with your rage and with your crooked leopard's glance
and your fetid sniggerings have as escort your honor!
What honor? What nonsense! What a joke!
Can honor fill up your belly? No.
Can honor repair a shinbone? It can't.
Or a foot? No. Or a finger? No. Or a hair? No.
Honor is no surgeon. What is it then? A word.
What is there in this word? Air that flies away.
Fine advantage!
Honor: can it be felt by a dead man? No.
Does it live only with the living? Not even, because
It is falsely swollen by flattery;
It is corrupted by pride, it is tainted by slander;
And for myself I don't want it, no, no!

Verdi set about crafting his setting of this soliloquy with an imagination and craftsmanship no other composer could have bettered. A typical moment is at the passage "What is it then? A word." The trivial nature of the chain of hop-skipping woodwind figures is perfect for expressing the empty insignificance of mere words:
When Falstaff continues his tirade with the contemptuous question, "What's in this word? Air, that flies away", Verdi outdoes himself with more woodwind roulades, this time curling in wisps and dissipating as they rise like cigarette smoke:
Oh Faithful Reader, I'm telling you that the only way to grasp the greatness of this collaboration of librettist and composer, both in the Honor speech and in the opera as a whole, is by means of careful and attentive repeated hearings with the text in hand. The more one knows it, the more the craftsmanship and humanity reveals itself, engendering admiration and love in the listener.

But the title of this post referenced not two but THREE Falstaffian honor speeches. Did you catch last week's edition of the blog, in which we identified ficional and real-life characters resembling Sir John Falstaff? I specified Dr. House from the recent drama series on Fox TV. I'll have you know that the other night I was watching a rerun from Season 8 of the series, one in which the Patient of the Week was a soldier accused of treason. In what simply has to have been a tribute to our pal Falstaff, House was given his very own Honor speech, one the Fat Knight would have toasted in approval. Get a load: the scene is House's conference room; a differential diagnosis is in progress when Dr. Adams ventures an opinion:


ADAMS: He’s not contesting the treason charges. 
If his code of honor is that strong, he’s not going to 
bother faking symptoms.

HOUSE: Pleading guilty isn’t “honorable”, it’s just stupid. …
What is honor? Dying for your country? Getting straight A’s? 
Killing your daughter because she had the audacity to get raped? 
People define honor as whatever makes them feel “honorable”.
 It’s a circle going nowhere. Which, I guess, is what circles do.

I smiled as I heard those words. And somewhere, Williams Shakespeare, Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi are smiling as well.

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