Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri has become synonymous worldwide with the bawdy, rascally and ultimately lovable title character of Falstaff — the last of famed composer Giuseppe Verdi’s 28 operas. While making his debut in 2013 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Maestri marked his 200th performance in the role, a remarkable milestone.
In his review of the production, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini called Maestri a “powerhouse” singer “who simply owns the role of Falstaff. At 6 foot 5 with his Falstaffian physique, Mr. Maestri certainly looks the part,” he wrote. “A natural onstage, and surprisingly light on his feet, he makes Falstaff a charming rapscallion and sings with consummate Italianate style.”
Maestri will reprise his signature role April 21, 23 and 26 in full-length concert performances of Falstaff with Riccardo Muti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The performances will complete Muti’s presentation of all three of Verdi’s Shakespearean operas with the CSO. “I have already sung this opera as a concert performance in the past,” Maestri said via e-mail, “and I believe it is so ‘theatrical’ that it can very effectively be sung without staging. All you need is a good togetherness with the other singers and with the conductor. For the concerts in Chicago, we have all we need to make it a great Falstaff.”
Muti and the Italian baritone have a special bond, because Muti taught him the role of Sir John Falstaff when the singer was 29 years old and all but unknown. In 2001, as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the composer’s death, Maestri made his debut in the opera at La Scala in Milan and then performed it again with the same La Scala cast and musicians in a different, smaller production shortly thereafter at the 328-seat Teatro Verdi in Busseto, Verdi’s birthplace. (A recording of the latter production was released in 2003 on DVD and remains available.)
“My debut as Falstaff at La Scala with Maestro Muti is, and will always be, among my dearest memories,” Maestri said. “From that moment, my career took off, and I have to thank him for believing in my artistic and vocal potential. Since then unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to work with him again, and I have to say that I am very happy to be reinterpreting, with him and with this great orchestra, Verdi’s last masterpiece. Muti is undoubtedly today’s greatest interpreter of Verdi’s operas.”
When Verdi completed Aida in 1871, he was nearly 60, and many musical observers assumed it would be his final statement in the form. But in the 1880s and 1890s, the publisher Giulio Ricordi and poet-composer Arrigo Boito managed to lure him out of semi-retirement and inspired him to write three more operas. Verdi was a devoted fan of the Bard, and two of his three last operas are Shakespearean adaptations: Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). As the librettist for all three of the operas including Falstaff, Boito condensed and, many experts believe, improved on “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” adding a few sections from “Henry IV.”
Verdi began work in secret on the opera in March 1890; because he had no deadlines and was essentially writing for himself, he took special pleasure in the process. “Certain passages,” the composer wrote, “are so droll that the music has often made me laugh while writing it.” Although he did get bogged down at times by self-doubt and illness, he completed the orchestral score in the fall of 1892 and began rehearsals the following year.
In an essay in The Lyric Opera Companion, Maxine R. Kanter writes that unlike some of Verdi’s earlier operas that were written in a “set style,” with a distinctive aria or ensemble associated with a character or group of characters, a rush of melodies almost tumble over themselves in Falstaff. While Falstaff is still what she calls a “singers’ opera,” the orchestra plays a greater role in the work’s development, and the orchestration is more complex and refined than anything the composer did before.
Kanter points especially to the “magical and ethereal beauty” that Verdi weaves in the opera’s final scene, set in Windsor Park at midnight. “Enchantment fills the air as Nannetta, now the Queen of the Fairies, calls to her attendants, who gather together to the music accompaniment of woodwinds and strings in a series of staccato effects, suggesting the twittering and fluttering of birds. As an example of orchestral genius, it not only rivals similar ‘fairy’ tone painting in Berlioz and Mendelssohn, it represents the distance that Verdi has traveled from his early ‘oom-pa-pa’ orchestral writing to this, his last opera.”
Since his 2001 debut in Falstaff, Maestri has gone on to perform the title role in more than 20 opera houses. “I have sung in many productions all over the world,” he said. “Some of those productions were extraordinary, some less, but each one of them has left me with a wealth of experience that has helped develop and mature this grumpy character. Sir John is like a life companion, a mirror on which I see my human and artistic growth, not to mention my growth as an interpreter.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Ambrogio Maestri is the errant knight in a modern-dress production of Verdi’s Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera. | Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera