OGSA’s once and future president Carol Garrard considers Verdi’s farewell gift to the world, his comic masterpiece Falstaff, which we are previewing on March 25 and 30, 2016.
In the autograph score of his last opera, Falstaff, Verdi added this note in his handwriting (translation by M.J. Phillips-Matz, Verdi, p. 718ff.):
The last notes of Falstaff. All is finished! Go, go, old John… Walk on your way as long as you can… amusing type of rogue eternally true, beneath different masks, in every time, in every place! Go, walk, walk, farewell!
No one who has read the libretto carefully can fail to notice that Verdi’s goodbye echoes Falstaff’s own aria at the beginning of Act III. After being thrown into the Thames, he drinks warm wine to avoid catching a cold:
Go, old John, go, go on your way; walk on until you die. Then true virility will disappear from the world. (English translation of Boito’s Italian libretto from W. Weaver, Seven Verdi Librettos, p. 298f.)
The original Italian in both cases is even more poignant: Verdi’s note begins “Va, va, vecchio John . . . Cammina per la tua via finche tu puoi…” He is almost directly quoting Falstaff, who sings, “Va, vecchio John, va, va per la tua via; cammina finche tu muoia.”
Obviously there is a great distance between the man Verdi and his artistic creation Falstaff, but such a direct citation of his own work at the close of his final score does give us a hint of Verdi’s own feelings for the old knight. Verdi was 80 years old when he closed the last page of his final operatic score. To write a masterpiece at 80 is, in the words of the Italian theorist of aging, Cesare Lombroso, “as extraordinary an event as a woman of 70 giving birth…”
Looking at the last words of Verdi’s own note, “go, walk, walk, farewell!” a biographer could readily feel that here, just as in Shakespeare’s Tempest, when Prospero says he will abandon his “rough magic,” so our composer is saying farewell to his professional life.
Saying “addio” to that corpus of masterpieces must inevitably be tinged with some melancholy. Verdi had indeed signaled while he was actually composing Falstaff that this would be his farewell. He constantly asserted in his letters that he was writing the opera for his own pleasure. To take but one example, sent 1890, “I am having fun writing the music to it, without any other projects of the kind; and I don’t even know if I will finish it… I repeat: I am having fun…” While this appears to be Verdian coyness—perhaps to avoid pressure?—it is an indisputable fact that Verdi composed the entire opera using a toy theatre. Arrigo Boito brought to his home in Bussetto a perfect tiny scale model of La Scala, done by a German toy manufacturer. All the sets, all the props, all the costumed characters were each done as tiny models. Verdi sat down with Boito in front of his theatre and blocked the entire staging of the opera, all the way to throwing a tiny bucket of water on the tiny Falstaff and then telling Boito to move Falstaff further upstage so Dr. Caius could enter at precisely the right angle. All of this tininess of the La Scala microcosm had to then be translated to the macrocosm of the real La Scala stage!
Being a biographer myself, I cannot help but think that Verdi sitting in front of his toy theatre blocking out his last opera represents a concentrated projection of his genius and his commentary on his entire oeuvre. For though Verdi was never a childlike man (who could be after burying his infant son and toddler daughter and beloved first wife in a matter of months?) he penetrated to the heart of opera not just as “drama in music” as he defined it, but opera as play. For the highest form of play for adults as well as children is at its core “extra-ordinary.” The disguised or masked individual “plays” another part, another being. On the operatic stage, he is another being. An opera is circumscribed in time and place; it begins and it inevitably must end. But play can be in earnest. Writing an opera could be hell on earth, (Verdi once described his years of writing “patriotic” operas as his “galley years”) but it could also be simply fun, though “fun” seems inadequate as a word.
Perhaps we have a clue here that in writing his final opera, Verdi accessed a sphere of the human condition that had barely been accessible to him for fifty years. Whatever else Falstaff is, it is formally a comedy. And Verdi’s first comedy, Un giorno di regno, (“King for a Day”), had been a spectacular flop at its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1840. The audience booed and whistled throughout the entire opera, as only a La Scala audience, where opera is practiced as blood sport, can. Verdi, according to the custom of the time, sat in the orchestra pit in full view of the hissing audience throughout the performance. It was a living hell. The opera was withdrawn after a single performance. Verdi never forgot that the Milanese audience knew perfectly well that his two children and his young wife had died within previous 14 months. Verdi himself remembered the three deaths as telescoped into a single three month pit of despair, but he was compressing his intense grief, as biographers have discovered.
He did not return to La Scala for 25 years, for a refocused production of La forza del destino. By then he was world famous. Forza was a huge hit, of course, and the Milanese audience was wild with rapture. His friend, Countess Clarina Maffei, wrote him of her pleasure at his triumph. His response was to hark back to the reception of Un giorno di regno, and that audience, who “knew” as he emphasized, of his personal tragedy.
So Verdi retained the tragic sense of life throughout his career, but in Falstaff I think he gained a measure of forgiveness for the callousness of that audience. The last act shows the characters admitting that they are asses, and people asking for forgiveness. Ford gives his blessing, and Falstaff suggests ending the play with a chorus, and Ford invites all to communal supper. Falstaff leads the chorus—everything in the world is a prank. Man is born a prankster. All are fooled! Everyone laughs. He who laughs last laughs best.
In that final chorus, we can hear on the border of our consciousness Verdi himself laughing last, and best. He couldn’t write an opera just for himself; he needed that audience as well.