In the summer of 1889, Giuseppe Verdi, the most celebrated opera composer of his time and a living icon of Italy, was 75 years old. Having seen his Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and Aida established as the world's most frequently given operas, he could now watch Otello, his most recent work, sweep across three continents. After its premiere, everyone had supposed that Verdi would retire, but they were wrong because soon he was thinking about a comedy: Falstaff.
As the absolute master of his field, Verdi had poured out the music of passion, vengeance, anguish, all-devouring grief, and death. That was what the audience wanted, given the fashions of his time, but he had often thought about comedy, as he confided in 1890 to historian Gino Monaldi. "For 40 years I have wanted to write a comic opera . . . . Still, the usual 'buts,' which are everywhere, were always standing in my way. Now [Arrigo] Boito has taken care of all the 'buts,' and he has written me a lyric comedy unlike any other; I am having a good time writing the music, [but] with no plans; and I don't even know whether I will finish." After all, the composer was in his mid-70s at the time.
In spite of his age, then, Verdi was courting the Muse of Comedy, although his only venture into that genre, Un giorno di regno, had failed miserably in 1840. The scandalous fiasco of its first (and only) night left him so bitter that even 20 years later, he had not forgotten it. Describing his circumstances at the time, he said he had been "a poor, sick young man, working under pressure [to finish the opera on schedule] and with a heart ripped apart by a terrible catastrophe," the deaths of his two young children and his wife. Given this, he might never have touched comedy again, but in fact he had done so, creating Oscar, the sassy page in Un ballo in maschera, and Fra Melitone, the cranky friar in La forza del destino. Both share the composer's earthy worldliness and sense of life's ironies.
All this meant that Verdi was thoroughly prepared and in good spirits when he tackled Falstaff. But it was not his only chore, for he was also involved in big charitable ventures, which included the building of several nursery schools and a small hospital for the peasants of his area. He was also about to launch a much bigger project: the construction of his Casa di Riposo per Musicisti in Milan, the "House of Rest" for about 100 poor and elderly musicians. These brick-and-stone structures survive today, still serving the sick and the needy, as he intended them to do.
As he started on Falstaff, then, Verdi was busy and strong, famous and very rich, and happier than he had been in years. To his good fortune, he had a trusted librettist in Arrigo Boito, who had authored the libretto of Otello. After reading Boito's scenario for Falstaff, Verdi sent off an ebullient letter that simply leaps off the page: "What a joy! To be able to say to the audience, HERE WE ARE AGAIN!!! COME TO SEE US!!!"
Verdi began by rereading the Shakespeare plays that are the sources of the opera. He was more than comfortable with them because the scenes in the Garter Inn took him straight back to a childhood and youth spent as the son, grandson, and nephew of rural tavern keepers. The Garter, like the Verdis' taverns, was the true and beating heart of the community, a place bursting with energy and rich in its store of secrets and confidences, messages and letters, arguments, food and drink, noise, and even riotous exchanges between customers. Verdi had seen it all. Nor were these tavern scenes something out of the distant past, for shortly before starting Falstaff, he had bought a village tavern near his farm and was fussing about getting a license to sell wine there! As for the scenes in Ford's house in Windsor, Verdi could call on memories of his student days, when he lived in the home of a middle-class merchant. In a word, Falstaff reminded him of worlds he knew well.
Often, as work went forward, he was in high spirits, as when he wrote to Boito reporting on his progress: "The Big Belly is about to go mad! Some days he does not move; he sleeps and is in bad humor. But at other times, he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart. I let him act up, but if he goes on like this, I will put a muzzle and straitjacket on him." In other words, Verdi was in complete control. By 1892, Verdi was finishing the opera and choosing his cast for opening night.
The great star baritone Victor Maurel, who had sung Iago in Otello, now sang Falstaff, while the ever-reliable Antonio Pini-Corsi sang Ford; and tenor Edoardo Garbin, Fenton. The principal women were Emma Zilli as Alice; Adelina Stehle as Nannetta; and witty, beautiful Giuseppina Pasqua as Quickly. Edoardo Mascheroni conducted, but in reality everything was under Verdi's strict supervision, for he personally coached the singers and monitored every rehearsal.
The hugely successful world premiere of Falstaff took place at La Scala on February 9, 1893, with Verdi hailed as an artist and a hero. Although he might have gone home to rest on his laurels, he stayed with the troupe through the third performance then bade everyone farewell. Making his way out of La Scala for what would turn out to be the last time, he found everyone assembled on the stairway. Slowly, reverently, they reached out to him as he passed. Many cried. It was a sad, sad night, for everyone sensed an era had ended; but Verdi had the last laugh after all, for in Falstaff he left us a miracle of his old age.
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz is the author of biographies on Puccini and Verdi.