The Sounds in Silence

Classic Arts Features   The Sounds in Silence
The orchestra is the principal character in Verdi's Falstaff, writes Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers. The company's production runs through May 15.

"Mr. Summers! We need more titles!" the woman said.

"Excuse me?" I said, putting my knife and fork down.

"We need more titles! You must help!"

It is January 2005, a few hours before a performance of Idomeneo at Houston Grand Opera. I am seated alone in a restaurant near the Wortham Center.

"Titles? Do you mean supertitles?" I asked.

"Yes! Yes! We love opera but we need more titles!" Her voice grew in intensity. I hid my silverware.

This passionate woman finally calmed down enough to clarify her request: "You need to put supertitles up during the overtures! And during the introductions to arias! And in the middle of arias when the singers aren't doing anything! And at the end of arias when the singers are finished! Please!!!!"

I gently inquired what she would like the supertitles to say when there was clearly no text to translate.

"It doesn't matter what they say! Tell more of the story or talk about what the characters are thinking or give some musical history or something! Just anything but all of that silence!"

I tried to assure her that the overture to Mozart's Idomeneo was not "silence." I thanked her and we parted. But unfortunately this was not the first time I've had such an encounter, and I was forced to wonder: 20 years after the advent of supertitles, had audiences lost their ability to listen?

One of the greatest operas in the repertoire, Verdi's Falstaff, is returning to Houston Grand Opera to crown our 50th Anniversary Gala season. Falstaff is a great favorite of musicians and opera buffs, who prize its inventiveness and musical sophistication. But despite its well-documented greatness, it has never won the place in the public's affection that some of Verdi's other operas have attained. Why? A big part of the answer probably lies in my encounter with the woman in the restaurant.

Arrigo Boito's libretto for Falstaff brilliantly distilled four vast Shakespeare plays (Henry V, Henry IV parts I and II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor) into a concise and effervescent linguistic tour de force. Boito's language has a music all its own; he filled Falstaff with dazzling onomatopoeic words to which the 80-year-old Verdi responded with his most youthful and spirited score. Falstaff is a perfect fusion of words and music. And while the supertitles may help you with the alliterative words and frolicking plot, the main character of the piece can't be read from the supertitles. With due respect for Bryn Terfel, Patricia Racette, and the rest of our wonderful cast, the main character of Verdi's Falstaff is the score itself, personified by the orchestra. To fully enjoy Falstaff, you need only to listen. Just the sound of the words and Verdi's orchestra tell you everything.

Verdi's orchestration bubbles and cackles throughout Falstaff, commenting on situations and characters, dreaming up others. Melodies soar up and disappear as quickly as the human emotions that emerge and dissipate. Verdi's Falstaff is truly a feast for the ear. I don't have room to point out every delight, perhaps just a few appetizers.

The opening scene, even just the ribald opening chord, perfectly sets the scene for the raucous and slovenly inhabitants of the Garter Inn. Listen to the section where Falstaff muses on being thin: Verdi scores the passage for piccolo and cello, in unison, but four octaves apart, perfectly painting in sound Falstaff's vast girth. Pistol and Bardolf triumphantly proclaim "Falstaff immenso!" ("immense Falstaff") as the orchestra paints immensity (with Verdi taking a sly wink at his own immense Triumphal March from Aida).

Chattering intrigue is in the air well before Windsor's merry wives say a word in the second scene: listen for the chortling of the woodwinds in the opening measures. With just ten players Verdi creates an utterly feminine world that contrasts perfectly with the rambunctious antics of the all-male opening scene. Near the end of this whirlwind act, in one of the opera's great moments, Alice Ford muses on the trick the ladies plan to play on Falstaff. As she sings "Vedrai che quell'epa terribile e tronfia Si gonfia, Si gonfia" ("you'll see that terrible and pompous belly swell, and swell, and swell"‹the Italian word "gonfia" means "swell" or "puff up"), the ladies join in saying, "gonfia, Si gonfia, Si gonfia!" as the music swells to the breaking point. At the end of the phrase the ladies say, "Si gonfia e poi crepa" ("his belly will swell and burst")‹and as they finish the word "crepa" (burst), the orchestral sound literally bursts and cracks open.

It's impossible to miss the orchestra's role in the opening scene of the second act. At the end of Mistress Quickly's visit to Falstaff to arrange an assignation between the married Alice Ford and Sir John, the corpulent knight says, "Alice e mia!" ("Alice is mine!"), and the orchestra cackles with raucous laughter followed immediately by a delightfully pompous little march that Sir John sings to himself: "Go, old John, go on your way." Sir John, of course, sees himself as a serious romantic suitor; it is the orchestra that tells us how pompous and narcissistic (but loveable) he really is.

Aren't those bouncing bedsprings we hear in the middle of Ford's aria, when he (wrongly) accuses his wife of infidelity? And there is no more delightful orchestral moment in Falstaff than the title character's appearance at the end of the Ford monologue, dressed up in all of his finery, proud as a peacock and self-satisfied. The two men try to top each other by insisting the other leave the room first. The music, self-important and clearly overblown, clues us in to every thought underneath their simplistic interchange.

Perhaps the greatest single scene in Falstaff is the finale of Act II, with the ensemble of ten characters: Falstaff has been stuffed into a laundry basket; the young lovers are having another assignation, this time behind a screen; the Windsor wives attempt to conceal the fat knight; while Ford and his retinue think they are capturing Falstaff behind the screen instead of the young lovers. But again, it is the orchestra that tells the tale. As Ned, Will, Tom, and Isaac struggle to dump the laundry basket out the window, not realizing that a vast Sir John Falstaff is inside, listen to the horns trill out the strain of their muscles. And when the contents of the basket are emptied into the Thames, a scale descends through the orchestra, from the highest sounding pitches to the lowest, musically depicting John's fall from the heights, as the trumpets blare out triumphantly and his body hits the water.

The third act opens with a humiliated and drenched Sir John Falstaff. As he drinks a glass of wine to calm his spirits (saying, "To drink some sweet wine and unbutton oneself in the sun: Lovely thing!"), the strings quietly pass around a slithering figure representing the wine reaching through every fiber of his body. As he relaxes he speaks of the effect of wine on the mind‹every little corpuscle starts to trill with life:

The black cricket that hums within
the tipsy man,
Every fiber of the heart trills;
The merry air,
at the trill, flashes and
a trilling madness unbalances the
merry Globe!
And the trill invades the world.

As Falstaff's speech begins, we hear a single flute trilling, very quietly, almost in the background. As Falstaff becomes more and more excited with the idea of the trill, more instruments are added until the entire orchestra is trilling away in a raucous fortissimo.

The final scene, in Windsor Park, is orchestrally right out of A Midsummer Night's Dream, filled with offstage horns and translucent textures, a summer night in sound. Nannetta, disguised as the Queen of the Fairies, calls forth the children of Windsor, all of them disguised as nymphs and elves, to begin the pageant that will eventually bring comeuppance to Falstaff. As the other villagers arrive, in more treacherous disguises, the orchestral palette darkens as well. In a particularly delightful section, Alice, Meg, and Quickly encourage the little sprites to pinch and sting Falstaff, in words that sound utterly like their meaning: "Pizzica, pizzica, pizzica, stuzzica, spizzica, spizzica, pungi, spiluzzica" ("Pinch, pinch, pinch, prod, nibble, nibble, sting, peck"), as the strings play pizzicato, literally pinching the strings of their instruments as Falstaff gets a thorough thrashing.

How frustrating not to be able to point out all of the details of this miraculous work, but it would require a book, not an article. The end of Falstaff, a rousing comic fugue, is much more than just a finale to an opera. It is the final statement of a long and rewarding life in music. No doubt the fugue is a little dig by Verdi: a fugue is a largely academic form of writing. Sixty years before, Verdi had been refused entrance to the Milan Conservatory that now bears his name; he had been judged of "insufficient talent." After a lifetime of tragic masterpieces‹La Traviata, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Aida, Otello‹Verdi ended his career in a burst of laughter and humanity. The text to the final fugue of Falstaff, a paraphrase on "All the world's a stage," is "Everything in the world is a joke. Man is born a jester . . . . He laughs well who has the last laugh." Verdi closes the piece in a thrilling sunburst of sound, ending his own musical life triumphantly and optimistically.

I hope the lady I met in the restaurant last January hears Falstaff‹really hears Falstaff. I also hope I meet her again. Perhaps the next time we can sit down together, have a nice meal, listen to some music, and laugh and laugh and laugh.

Patrick Summers is music director of Houston Grand Opera.

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