October 6, 2013

Falstaff and the greatest operatic ensemble EVER

In today's post I want to break down the best moment in the best scene of the best opera ever: Verdi's Falstaff. (Substitute "my favorite" for "the best" in the above sentence if you have a problem with the declarative nature of that statement.) It's the big ensemble in Act fao2, scene 2; the scene in which Ford and his posse of The Men Of Windsor (i.e. the men's chorus), in the midst of a frenzied search for Falstaff, hear a kiss from behind a screen in Ford's home. Ford is convinced that behind that screen, his wife Alice is making passionate love with Sir John, confirming his worst suspicion: Alice has betrayed him!

He doesn't realize that the smooch actually was produced by his daughter Nannetta and her boy-toy Fenton, the boyfriend Daddy Ford can't stand. Falstaff, by this point, is cowering in a large wicker laundry basket in the corner, covered with a week's worth of soiled underwear.

At this moment, the moment when Ford points to the screen like a bird dog pointing at a duck and hisses "C'e!" ("There!"), there begins one of those concerted ensembles which crop up from time to time in opera. This particular ensemble reveals Verdi's genius at its wittiest and most brilliant. Remember, Dear Readers. what's true in the theater is true in opera: dying is easy; comedy is hard. (You can see a staged performance of this scene by clicking on this link and jumping to the 1:19:23 mark.)

What you need to know right away is that Verdi's ensemble represents more than just the creation of a truly funny musical number. Beyond that, the 80-year-old composer took the opportunity to poke fun at one of Italian opera's hoariest cliches, a cliche in which he himself had indulged on more than one occasion, as in and Il Trovatore, to name one. This cliche consists of bringing two enemies together for a dramatic confrontation, often with swords drawn. While the chorus gasps in four-part horror and the lead soprano frets, the foes (usually a tenor and a baritone) bellow dire threats utilizing phrases resembling the following:

"Now is the hour of your death!"
"Your blood shall flow like a torrent!"
"You shall taste the tip of my sabre!"
"Prepare to meet your maker!"
"My breast bursts with rage!"

This sort of thing goes on for anywhere from five to eight minutes in an elaborate formal musical number consisting of, say, an orchestral introduction, an "A" theme, a contrasting "B" theme, and repeated choral refrains. Meanwhile, you (sitting out in the audience or listening on your stereo) want to scream at the lot of them:


In the course of teaching opera appreciation to thousands of adults over the past decade, I've learned that the sheer illogic of men vowing to kill each other "any second" while failing to git 'er done is a real impediment to many people's enjoyment of the art form. "It's so unrealistic", they point out with outraged sensibilities, "that would never happen in real life!"

Some fourteen years before Falstaff, Gilbert and Sullivan mocked this sort of thing in Pirates of Penzance. A group of policemen sing at length about an impending assault on the pirates with multiple repetitions of "Forward on the foe; we go, we go, we go" and so on, only to be interrupted by Major General Stanley's complaint: "Yes, but you don't go."

It turns out that Giuseppe Verdi himself, in his final opera, was willing to admit that such "do-nothing" ensembles are in fact sort of ridiculous. I LOVE it that the composer winks at us and, in the finale of Act 2, scene 2, deliberately parodies himself as well as such predecessors as Donizetti (think the sextet in Lucia di Lammermoor) and others by writing the king of all "do-nothing" ensembles. "We all know" Verdi is saying, "these ensembles don't make sense. So I'm going to poke a little fun at them."

The ensemble begins with Ford and Caius whispering threats at, they assume, Falstaff as they face the screen while pizzicato strings choreograph their stealthy tip-toeing. "I'll thrash you!" "I'll smash you!" and on in that general vein.

Meanwhile, Quickly and Meg are nervously standing guard over the laundry basket, surreptitiously singing a nervous staccato melody expressing anxiety about future developments while poor Sir John emits an occasional groan or request for air.

The third layer in the musical texture consists of the frisky lovers who are getting hot and heavy behind the screen, whispering sweet nothings in vocal lines that soar out above the adults' sotto voce utterances.

Ford, meanwhile, is engaged in a level of military strategy that suggests the invasion of Normandy more than tearing down a screen that's a couple of yards in front of him, barking out orders and strategies: "You men form my left wing; you others flank me on the right!"

Verdi, in sustaining these three levels of musical activity, has a task similar to the guy in a vaudeville act who has to keep several plates spinning on sticks without crashing to the floor. The various layers of vocal activity are all separate from each other, but must mesh together perfectly to form one musical unit. Not so easy, pals o' mine! Yet in performance, every component and affect is so crystal-clear that translations or super-titles are hardly needed.

What may not be apparent to non-musicians is how each muttered threat coming from Ford's men, which sound spontaneous and random in performance, are actually dictated by precise rhythmic placement. Music is the art that happens in time; it was Verdi's job, sitting at his desk with pen and manuscript paper, to assign a moment in time to each "I'll thrash you!" in a way calculated to make it sound improvised out of time. The mind boggles.

Another aspect deserving our admiration has to do with point of view. You know, operatic composers have at their command all the devices of fiction used by novelists: symbolism, metaphor, foreshadowing, and especially point of view. Just as a writer can choose first-person or third-person in narrating a story, so a composer can allow music to reflect characters as they see themselves, or as others see them.

Finally, notice how all the grown-ups appear foolish, but the two lovebird teenagers are presented sympathetically. Ford, as irrational in his pathological jealousy as Othello, sinking to a new low in the annals of lunatic husband behavior; Falstaff, so delusionally vain in the first place, now reduced to a quivering mound of cowardice; the Merry Wives having indulged in a level of scheming worthy of Lucy Riccardo and Ethel Mertz at their zaniest. 

But Fenton and Nannetta are the opposite of foolish. In their innocence and mutual infatuation they are charming and adorable. The reason? In Fenton, the aging Verdi saw himself wooing his first love; the child sweetheart he married: Margherita Barezzi. And in Nannetta, Margherita came to life once again. Verdi's first wife, whom he'd wed fifty-seven years earlier, left him a widow when she died of encephylitis after less than four years of marriage. Their two infant children had preceded her in death.

For the next several decades, this tragedy was re-lived on the stage in opera after opera from Verdi's pen. A gallery of lovers, all doomed, all passionate but unhappy. Violetta and Alfredo, Leonora and Manrico, Radames and Aida, Otello and Desdemona, and dozens of others. Death awaited them all --- until Falstaff.

In his final take on romantic love, Giuseppe Verdi found that he had purged all his demons and exhausted the deep reservoirs of bitterness and anger simmering in his tragedies. Rather than venting over the family he'd lost, he was able now to remember the happiness he'd shared with Margherita and create a loving tribute to her. This bespeaks a level of personal integrity and strength of character I find truly inspiring.

Remember, as you enjoy Falstaff: Nannetta is Margherita. It's why you and I fall in love with her as well. Is it any wonder she is accorded the honor, in Act 3, scene 3, of Verdi's last aria for soprano; the only stand-alone aria in the entire piece? 

Pretty good ensemble, wouldn't you say? Poking fun at illogical operatic ensembles while simultaneously composing the greatest one of all. A good day's work.

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