From Nabucco to Falstaff
Verdi the dramaturg of conflicts
Published in Rivista di Studi Verdiani n 27 year 2017
On my desk there are two works by Giuseppe Verdi, Nabucco and Falstaff, the third and the last title of his catalogue.
Starting from this occasional juxtaposition I would like to highlight some aspects of Verdi’s musical theatre: Verdi as an author in constant evolution and the experimental aspect of his writing; Verdi as a playwriter of conflicts and author who constantly finds himself “in the present”.
I must say that I generally distrust directors who talk about their work. Directors speak through what they achieve on stage, and in this they are part of a complex process: it is a collective advancement, a process of objectification that starts from a text containing a plurality of interpretative possibilities including, firstly, the indications and thoughts of the author.
What should we refer to? It seems to me that Verdi firmly invites to brevity and rapidity. He requests a dry scenic language and clarity in the definition of the characters. Studying and comprehending Giuseppe Verdi’s works is a process that occurs to a great extent on stage, in the concrete theatrical work. Verdi is a generous author to his interpreters. The conductor, the director and the performers are expected to understand first of all the reasons for the writing, the intention that gives rise to the syntax of each single work. They are asked to approach, to delve into the meanings and to express themselves without complacency and sentimentalism.
Verdi’s catalogue consists of extremely different works: how different is the dramaturgy and the musical language between Il Trovatore and La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, commonly identified as the “Trilogia Popolare”?
This diversity cannot be read as a line of progressive development alone. The development and progress in Verdi’s works seem to be of conflictual nature: that of an author led by renewal, experimentation and risk. An author fleeing from definitions, as if each work stemmed from a unique intent. At the same time, it is possible to identify some constant themes, some common topics of Verdi’s dramaturgy.
Fathers and sons. The mothers. The family. The gallery of unhappy paternities is inaugurated in Nabucco, finding its apotheosis in Don Carlos. But where are the mothers in Verdi? Apart from Azucena in Il Trovatore, who we certainly cannot consider a role model or an example, and Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, it seems that in Verdi’s operas mothers only appear in painful and often mysterious background stories (for example Amelia’s mother in Simon Boccanegra, and Gilda’s mother in Il Rigoletto) if not horrific ones, as in the case of Azucena’s mother who was burned in the stake.
In most cases, the composer wants to keep silent about the mothers – a good example is Fenena and Abigaille’s mother in Nabucco, who is not mentioned at all. Or, when the character is present in the original play, it can always be eliminated – as happens with Luisa’s mother in Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe.
If this rapid reconstruction is correct, then Falstaff‘s Alice will mark a strong, surprising discontinuity.
Another common topic of Verdi’s works, inaugurated with Nabucco, is that of family universes that generate dramatic conflicts and emotional relationships that are mostly catastrophic. This aspect culminates once more in Don Carlos, in which the whole play develops from a chain of “unhappy paternities”. These revolve around the character of Philip II and involve his son Don Carlos and the substitute son Marquis of Posa. On the other side, there is then the Grand Inquisitor, the “father in authority”, and the ghost of Charles V, a sort of archetypal father, who is therefore unparalleled.
Along his long journey, Verdi confronts himself with the characters and values which are typical in the romantic melodrama: the hero, the institutions of secular and religious power, the laws that regulate conflicts; and along his powerful modernization of melodrama, he ends up dismantling almost all of them. The hero tends to founder while the Law progressively becomes secular, making room to a real inner conflict: the characters are confronted with their own being and their human feelings, often consisting of resentment, atrocious jealousies (Fiesco, Philipp) and revenge. The characters linked to the cult – that is its ministers (Grand Inquisitor, Ramfis) – become utterly negative characters and the very figure of God becomes a theatrically irrelevant presence.
Along this path, the fundamental conflict between authority and freedom and its strong pessimistic connotations come to the fore in Verdi’s theatre.
Perhaps the point of no return is reached precisely in Don Carlos, an opera in which we witness the absolute frustration of the two protagonists, Philipp and Carlos: the failure of any heroism, Posa killed like an animal in a cage, the people under total domination.
Over time, Verdi made an impressive series of transformations, profound and necessary for his theatre. His characters are more and more complex and ambiguous and he succeeds in showing us, in an ever more dramatic way, moral inconsistency. If, before Verdi, the characters of an opera were morally united in order to comply with the need of simplicity and immediacy of melodramas, with Verdi this aspect is completely distorted. Relationships are interpreted as the author understands them in his historical present, thus powerfully modernizing them.
Nabucco and Falstaff. In Nabucco the moralism of a young man and young composer is expressed through violence. On the contrary, in Falstaff it is all about the elegance in the musical invention of the word, the expression of the absolute joy of life, a Mozartian happiness. We experience a totally different sound and “action”.
Already in the writing of Nabucco Verdi manifests his identity as an authentically tragic author and one of his preferred themes is the violence that lies within the human kind. Nabucco speaks of the great origins, of the confrontation of man with God, of a population and their redemption project, of a population facing their own identity. And all this is done in the present tense: the way in which Verdi composes this opera is an authentical reference to the roots of the culture, both in the conditions narrated and in their musical and scenic narration: Nabucco is the story that the choir representing the people is telling.
The dramaturgical engine of this work seems to me to reside in its political and spiritual meaning. Verdi’s true inspiration is here his utopia: the liberation of the oppressed people and freedom as an essential good for a community.
The work begins with a very strong scene of terror and invocation to God. Nabucco is the “Minister of an angry God’s wrath”.
In the project held at the Teatro alla Scala in 2013, which I will be soon presenting again, we begin with the escape of the Jews from a very ancient fear that resides in their souls. It is the fear of an aggressive God, the sense of guilt: “We have sinned!”.
For these reasons, the choice that was made was radical: the enemy of the people on stage is internal. It is the enemy that faces the memory. There are no Assyrians, it no longer seems conceivable to me to see the fake Assyrians on stage, with their fake beards. It wouldn’t even be a “bad fiction” anymore. It would be, as Luca Ronconi last said, “a fraud”.
All this takes place in a sacred place, a place of memory par excellence: a cemetery. A place devoted to death, a place that takes on the task of protecting the living, the victims.
Nabucco continually revolves around the threat of elimination of the Jewish people, even including the defeat of their God. The opera narrates the liberation of an oppressed population. The Jews in exile serve as an example for all exiled populations.
The character of Nabucco is essential: he initiates everything, he originates it, he endures it, he goes through it and finally, he carries it out.
We are faced with a text marked by a strong spirituality, which is expressed with cries of threats, invectives, rage, breakdowns, terror, with dreams, prophecies and invocations. To finally reach the moment of prayer and final reconciliation. A very strange theatrical piece…
Verdi will reach an extraordinary evolution in the writing of human characters, but here he seems to want to remain well anchored to characters of a primordial, univocal and vehement nature, and that is, in my opinion, the real novelty and exemplarity of this work.
Desert – and supernatural interventions: in the performance, after the initial scene and after the destruction of the sacred place, the story moves to a desert, which represents a place of exile and of loss of concrete references. Both a symbolic place and a non-place. A place of exile and punishment, but also a place of spirituality. And, in the case of Nabucco, a place of prophecies.
This context leads to supernatural events: the thunder that strikes Nabucco making him insane at the end of the second act and the collapse of the idol of Bel in the finale.
The desert is the form of the truth of this story steeped in prophecies, the place that contains it. Here, in the desert, the true center of Verdi’s work, “Va’ Pensiero”, was born. In our performance the Chorus gathers as if it were a single body, a single feeling, as well as a single voice. It is the synthesis of Nabucco and the “birth” of Giuseppe Verdi. The birth of a possible collective imagination: To be and to feel that you belong to the people.
At the beginning I talked about the theatre of conflict, where the main conflict seems to reside in the opposition between the individual, the law and reality: these forces are almost always irreconcilable therefore leading to a lost battle.
In this theatre of excess Verdi does not deny and does not hide the tragic ending of human fate. Often his characters have such an eagerness to discover their own destiny that they force their existential path in any way (Macbeth and Othello among others), with inevitable dramatic results. This is the reason why the final irruption of Sir John Falstaff is astounding.
It must be considered that Verdi never judges his characters from the outside, indeed he seems to immerse himself completely into the dynamics of their passions. This approach defines the human passion in his theatre: excessive and ineluctable, without compromise and with an impressive series of defeats.
And this is when Falstaff comes into play, the man without fear of making a bad impression, the man of superior moral significance, superior to any current morality. The man who does not dread defeat.
Falstaff, who in the end makes a mockery of death: the last farewell, the defeat of all, the last laugh. Liberation.
Verdi’s Falstaff goes beyond the original conflict between authority and freedom, he has totally released himself from it – and the monologue about honour proof of it.
In this play Verdi and Boito avoid the distressing scene of the meeting between Falstaff and the young King that leads to death by heartbreak; as if Henry IV ‘s Falstaff spoke of the crudeness of History, while “our” Sir John made an invincible pact with Theatre. A theatre that definitely functions as a superior reality.
Throughout his journey Verdi is obsessed with the theme of freedom. In Verdi’s path Falstaff is the last move: victory against sadness, victory against defeat. The long-awaited move.
It is the meeting with Boito that brings the composer, now in his seventies, back to the ancient desire to compose a comic opera – or better as he himself would later say “a lyric comedy that resembles no other”.
Boito uses the most convincing arguments – “After having made all the cries and moans of the human heart resound, the end is an immense burst of laughter! There is to be amazed!” – and it seems that Verdi is happy to follow him. And in fact, there is really to be amazed…
It seems to me that Verdi sees in Boito the younger brother he never had; having experimented the collaboration in Simone and Otello, Verdi reaches with Boito a level of trust and human correspondence that is transferred to the writing of Falstaff, bringing great fun and the necessary confidence to comedy.
Verdi himself speaks of Falstaff’s character as an almost physical presence, which invades his life. Falstaff is the personification of a miraculous, subtle intelligence, what Sir John himself calls “wit”. A wit that Verdi feels contaminated of. It is a rich and happy encounter for Verdi, the encounter with “the true virility” of the world… “All the women mutiny together. They damn for me!” (“tutte le donne ammutinate insieme si dannano per me!”) a strong premise to the Dionysian surge that Falstaff would like as a finale “Take me apart, like a chamois at the table!! Devour me!!!” (“Squartatemi come un camoscio a mensa!! Sbranatemi!!!”), to conclude with a sumptuous and not obvious “I love you!” (“Io t’amo!”).
I would like to highlight some aspects of Falstaff borrowed from the practice of stage work that seem essential to me in the scenic realization of this work, in particular regarding the character of Alice.
If in staging Falstaff we have a director thinking of Alice as a bourgeois character, we have lost before starting: Alice is the character with whom Sir John has the greatest affinities. Alice’s character must be capable of feeling totally open, there is a great communication between Alice and Falstaff, there is fascination. There is eroticism. Likewise, it is essential that Alice’s character is capable of comedy, that she is the true source of a “loud laughter”
that invades and wins everything. Laughter as the highest point, even in the description of Alice herself; there is a point where fascination is established:
“and one day, as she saw me passing by in her neighbourhood, she laughed.” (“e un giorno come passar mi vide ne’ suoi paraggi, rise.”) A laughter! (Boito’s invention).
Falstaff is a wonderful piece, thanks to the vivid word, the continuous invention, the surprising and saving laughter. As Verdi pointed out, Falstaff requires great accuracy from performers too: in their intentions, their thoughts, while being on stage, in the precision of images and meanings. The accuracy that is also required from Verdi himself in the diction of a wonderfully consonantal language.
Everything is played on Alice; she is the character on whom the bet must be accepted. That is where the difference lies: the difference between a comedy full of freedom, capable of continuous poetic inventions, and a bourgeois comedy in which the characters will inevitably be “cleaned up” and there will only be a distant shadow of eroticism.
If it weren’t for an erotic and passionate momentum within the scene of the women in the first act
– “But your face will shine on me, like a star on immensity” (“E il viso tuo su me risplenderà. Come una stella sull’immensità.”) – there would be no Falstaff.
Or rather, we would have a “tamed” Falstaff. It would almost be a fraud: there is something wild, unabashedly free in Falstaff’s character that it would be a crime to erase. We would lose too much.
Verdi’s Falstaff lies in this very particular union of sensuality and laughter.
A very small signal, the beautiful phrase pronounced by Falstaff at the opening of the scene in Alice’s house: “And now I can die happy. I will have lived a lot after this hour of blessed love” (“Ed or potrò morir felice. Avrò vissuto molto dopo quest’ora di beato amore.”). In order to start the encounter in such a way, there is also a dose of trust, and confidence. There is emotion, and not that of those who are thinking about culinary delights.
These decisions, these choices in staging Verdi’s operas involve responsibilities that are only partially related to aesthetic matters.
In the case of Falstaff, the elements are not very different from those in Rigoletto.
Rigoletto was born dramaturgically to push the grotesque towards a dramatic function – the character of Rigoletto embodies both the comic and the tragic, this is Verdi’s ambition. What should one do with Rigoletto if the comic aspect is not taken into consideration? It is clear that the highly innovative power of this work would come short.
What would happen to the “moral disturbance” that interested Verdi and that arose from showing the good and the evil intertwined with each other and not personified as opposed figures? This was thought to hurt moral sensibility: in addition to the character of Rigoletto, the fact that the seduced girl could feel pity for the seducer and that a scoundrel, the Duke in the second act, could have nostalgia for honesty.
Today, all of these elements risk of not being conveyed, representing the deformed, the grotesque, the shameless, the morbid, the pulp and the morally corrupt, merely as pure spectacle.
Rigoletto is an ambiguous character, full of contradictions; he is both the Fool and the King, a provocateur and a failed executioner, a father in love and a father who produces misfortunes.
It is evident that there is a strong identification of Verdi with his character: both in seeing fatherhood as a failed defence of the integrity of one’s children and in referring to the character of the buffoon on several occasions, as Verdi does.
Rigoletto is partly aware of his ambiguity, he somehow “plays” his physical deformity. Once again, we are faced with the use of theatre as an instrument of truth.
Rigoletto has a passion for exaggeration, but this character is not related to a sort of Elephant man. On the contrary, his deformity is mainly internal and Rigoletto overcomes it by reaching moments of virile strength, almost of authority.
Rigoletto is a work of secrets and hidden apparitions; even the thoughts of the characters are hidden, or hardly understood by the character himself. Thus, they must be declared – to the public and to oneself.
The way is that of enunciation and the result is a new and surprising “musical prose”, where the spoken element comes to strong contrast to the Duke’s vocation to singing and to easy lyricism.
Hence the intuition of Luciano Berio on Rigoletto as “one of the most sensational anticipations of Brechtian estrangement”: there is a particular critical sense of the characters towards themselves, their passions and their story. The driving force of the various situations is the unspoken, what one does not know or does not want to be known, the hidden thought that must become an enunciation.
All this richness, this variety of psychological aspects, is based on a fundamental, original contradiction, which Rigoletto himself sets out: Rigoletto’s crying is forbidden. Rigoletto is something else: “I am a man of laughter” (“L’uomo son io che ride!”) Exactly, laughter again.
And, again, the superior metaphor of Theatre.
It is not trivial to remember that Victor Hugo, in addition to being Tribolet’s father, is also the author of “The Man Who Laughs”, from which both the character and the make-up of Joker descend.
At this point, we should focus for a moment on the aspect of laughter: Rigoletto’s cynical, malignant laughter and Sir John’s happy laugh.
Verdi gives us a strong indication to follow and it would be a shame to abandon it: even for Rigoletto, there is no purely aesthetic question at stake.
The party in the first act of Rigoletto is a ball full of malice, phrases and laughter thrown into the dance. It is not a generic festivity.
The syntax of this work raises some serious human questions: the story is rich of mystery for the characters themselves, the situations must be exposed, dramatized – as in the case of the entire third act. Not only Gilda, but the audience as well, are called to be a witness, to observe what happens in the locanda of Sparafucile.
Verdi sees himself as the author of a “high” dramaturgy: the characters of Rigoletto do not know, or do not want to know, or cannot know (Gilda) or pretend that others do not know (Rigoletto towards everyone, not only with Gilda) or know only partially (the Chorus). Even the Duke does not know, but he is simply not interested, or he already knows enough.
Apart from the missing pieces of the story that are obviously unknown, what the characters do not know, or know in a limited and ambiguous way, is precisely the psychology of the human soul.
Verdi seems to be telling us that the human being is like that: it does not know how to forgive and is destined to persevere in his being, in his ontological imperfection. There is no evolution, there is no mediation, there is no dialectical relationship between contradictory realities.
Mozart’s conciliation of opposites or redemption are foreign to Verdi’s dramaturgy: each character must follow their path till the end. In some cases, approaching the epilogue of a story, Verdi’s characters achieve an understanding of their own story, often by experiencing a highly tragic lesson.
This is precisely what Falstaff’s rejection consists of. The thought is the same, the man is the same, but Verdi brings about a real revolution: he enters a higher dimension, where the imagination can ennoble man.
Today, Falstaff represents to us the opposite of our world, which is characterized by anxiety, by the fear of freedom. Falstaff fights essentially for freedom – and obviously, as he understands it, he fights as a Master of Life.
Falstaff cannot be deprived of the pleasure of company and mockery, of wine, stories and words. But on a closer inspection, even more important than the gag and the goofy action, is the ability to tell and laugh about it: a later, higher pleasure.
Andrew Bradley had understood correctly: we don’t laugh at Falstaff; we laugh with him. Besides: no one more than Falstaff is inclined to laugh at himself and at what happens to him. He is the first to do it, and generously precedes us.
Falstaff is first of all a man of spirit with libertarian existential purposes, eager to affirm and share his own lifestyle based on fun. A kind of fun that only makes sense if it is confirmed by human beings free from prejudices and excessive rules.
When we think of the entertainment that Falstaff introduces us to, it would make sense to abolish the figure and the world of a bulimic and “alcoholic” glutton. If Sir John were reduced to this, we would once again experience a fraud. On the contrary, Falstaff seems to tell a story in which wine and food are important but they are not the purpose: the purpose is fun, to have fun narrating – which is very clear in Henry IV, in the episode of the theft and the escape to the second act – the refinement in the story and in the mockery, in the images that the story produces.
Is there another character in the history of musical theatre that is equally capable and full of self-irony? Self-irony is a sign of awareness, and this awareness is totally absorbed – and not exhibited – in the character and in the text in general.
Why else would we have this gallery of Croesus, Menelaus, Actaeon, Mercury, Pandarus, Jupiter, Europa, if not as a testimony to the presence of the classic themes of comedy, betrayal and jealousy above all? As if the comic characters of Falstaff, Bardolfo, Pistola and Quickly were telling us: there is a long and great tradition behind us, and at this moment we are reinventing it.
What better conclusion than the path of Giuseppe Verdi? I am always a little surprised when the meaning of Falstaff is mainly concentrated on the aspect of decadence, on the signs of death. It is clear in a beautiful scene, the one of the arrival of Sir John in the woods, the midnight bell. It is a scene of disturbance and fear, from which Falstaff recovers almost immediately, and the fact that the character is capable of such feeling enriches and humanizes him. But the whole text implies and puts serious arguments into comedy, and this seems to add value to the freedom of joke and invention.
And with Falstaff, the theme of family also comes to a conclusion. At least, Verdi gives us with the character of Alice the figure of a mother, a mother caring for her daughter.
Thanks to Alice we witness the rapid, decisive, cheerful and collective resolution of the great injustice: Ford would like to marry his young daughter Nannetta to Dr. Cajus. A futilely unworthy father. But generally, we are talking about a comedy with a strong female protagonism – apart from or thanks to the character of Falstaff. (Ford is also an unworthy husband but he will later have to face a victorious Alice).
Back to Alice: finally, there is the character of a mother in an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, a mother without tragedies. Another final landing.
Throughout the unfolding of Falstaff, and also in the finale of the opera, we can feel a particular quality of writing, as if Verdi in the composition of this opera was moved by euphoria. A very rare feeling. We can actually imagine Verdi in the act of setting the actions to music, each line seems to generate theatre. But we can feel this superior quality even more in the writing of the concertato parts. The creativity here is of unattainable refinement.
After Mozart, when has euphoria ever been married to wisdom and mastery?
In very rare cases, in authentic states of grace. In this case, it was possible thanks to the meeting of Giuseppe Verdi and Boito with Falstaff and William Shakespeare.
“Great among men and of great terror is the power of laughter:
against which no one finds himself armed on every side in his conscience.
Whoever has the courage to laugh is master of the world,
little else than those who are prepared to die.”
Leopardi, Pensieri LXXVIII