Choosing five key arias from Falstaff can be a tricky business. Verdi’s autumnal comedy based on Shakespeare is considered an ensemble opera, rather than a vehicle for stars to strut their stuff. Arias and other set pieces are densely woven into the musical fabric. But listen closely, and you’ll discover several brilliant character portraits that Verdi devised with the librettist Arrigo Boito.
This October, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present a national radio broadcast of Falstaff, recorded live in April 2016 at Symphony Center. (Locally, the program will be heard beginning at noon, Saturday, Oct. 21, over WFMT-FM.) Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and a cast of 10 top international singers, including Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri in the title role. Before tuning in, bone up on the opera with these standout moments.
“L’Onore! Ladri”: Falstaff’s aria from Act 1, Scene 1
This stream-of-conscious monologue appears at the beginning of the opera, when Sir John Falstaff is drinking in a pub with his mischievous sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola. The roguish knight reveals his latest scheme: to seduce two Windsor wives, Alice Ford and Meg Page, in the hopes of stealing their wealthy husbands’ fortunes. But when he asks Bardolfo and Pistola to deliver love letters to the women, they refuse, saying it would be dishonorable. “Your Honor! Scoundrels!” Falstaff replies brusquely. For the next four minutes, the knight attempts to justify his bad behavior (“I must sometimes … out of necessity, sidetrack my honor”), lash out (“What a joke! Can honor fill your belly?”) and then orders his sidekicks “Away from here!”
“Quand’ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk”: Falstaff’s aria from Act 2, Scene 2
There’s an undercurrent of pathos in this short, catchy number. As Falstaff attempts to seduce Alice Ford, he excuses his obesity and boasts about his handsome youth. “When I was the page to the Duke of Norfolk,” he asserts, “I was so slim, so supple and so agile that I could have slipped through a ring.” Falstaff is portly but he’s no buffoon; as a knight, he knows what charm and sophistication should be. In Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity, cultural historian Sander L. Gilman suggests that Verdi and Boito’s Falstaff “was a clear break from the fat, comic tradition” of previous versions of the character. It’s noteworthy that Falstaff is neither a tenor nor a comic basso. “The baritone voice (and what Verdi chooses to do with it) seems to represent the decay of ‘real’ manhood into the pathology of aging,” writes Gilman.
“Sul fil d’un soffio etesio”: Nannetta’s aria from Act 3, Scene 2
Boito insisted that the young lovers Nannetta and Fenton never sing a duet in Falstaff, for their relationship should act simply “as sugar is sprinkled on a cake.” But if things never turn hot and heavy, each sings an enchanting third-act aria. Nannetta’s aria with chorus takes place in Windsor Park at midnight. Falstaff has again attempted to woo Alice before Meg arrives to warn of an approaching pack of supernatural creatures. Nannetta, in disguise as the Queen of the Fairies, summons the chorus of fairies to come out from hiding. “On the breath of an ethereal breeze, scurry, agile shadows,” she commands. Verdi’s glowing orchestral colors bring to mind the fairy music in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola”: Fenton’s aria from Act 3, Scene 2
In Windsor Park, Fenton, disguised as Oberon, serenades Nannetta in a sonnet, “Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola” (“From my lips the song flies in ecstasy”). This tenor aria is remarkable for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s not easy to sing, requiring considerable breath control to deliver the high and long legato lines. It also shows Verdi at his most self-referential — an aria about singing itself. As Emanuele Senici observes in The Cambridge Companion to Verdi, the text is speckled with musical terms, especially in the second verse: “The note which isn’t any longer alone / vibrates with joy in a chord secret / and enamoring the air before dawn / with another voice to its source flies back.” Though Verdi was nearly 80 when he composed Falstaff, the youthful ardor of this aria seems to surge forth naturally.
“Tutto nel mondo è burla … Tutti gabbati!”: Final ensemble
After giving all of his major operas tragic or melancholic endings, Verdi crowns his final work in the form with this formidable fugue, set to the words “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (“Everything in the world is a jest”). Verdi had “rediscovered” fugal writing, just as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did late in their careers. And comedy suited his disposition. “A tragedy causes its author genuinely to suffer,” he told Boito. “The jokes and laughter of comedy exhilarate mind and body.” The opera ends on the line: “He who laughs last laughs best.” And with the final blaze of brass, Falstaff is no longer alienated from society but welcomed as a member of the group.
A New York-based writer, Brian Wise also is the producer for CSO Radio broadcasts.
TOP: Ambrogio Maestri sings the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff during CSO concerts, led by Riccardo Muti, in April 2016. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016