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Falstaff: Preparation and Insights

A deeper look into Verdi's comedic masterpiece...

Original Promotional Poster (1893)

"To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying,

when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is

discretion, in the which better part I have sav'd my life."

-Sir John Falstaff

(Act V, Henry IV part 1)

Premiering at La Scala in February of 1893, Falstaff holds a special place in my heart. Nannetta will be the first standard operatic role that I will get to perform for an audience, cover-to-cover. Verdi is also my all time favorite composer (if you know me, this is surely not a surprise). I have been lucky enough to study the opera this past school year in classes such as Characterization and Music History, understanding that gaining background information and forming opinions about it are essential to adequate role study. (Right: The originial Ricordi cover of Falstaff score, 1893.)

Plot Summary (from Naxos)

A more in depth plot can be found here, via The Metropolitan Opera)

At the Garter Inn Falstaff quarrels with Dr Caius over an earlier drunken episode. He sends his page with love- letters to Mrs Page and Mrs Ford, who, in the following scene, plan their revenge together, while Falstaff's follower Pistol tells Ford what is happening. Nannetta, daughter of the Fords, has a brief moment of love with Fenton. The plot against Falstaff is carried forward through Mistress Quickly, who makes an appointment for him with Mrs Ford. Ford himself appears at the inn, in disguise, offering a bribe, if Falstaff will pave the way for him by seducing Mrs Ford. Learning of the assignation already arranged, Ford is jealous. In the following scene, at Ford's house, the women prepare a laundry- basket for the trick they will play on Falstaff, while Mrs Ford assures Nannetta of her opposition to her father's proposed match for her with Dr Caius. The arrival of the jealous Ford leads to Falstaff's concealment in the laundry-basket, covered with dirty linen, while attention is distracted by Nannetta and Fenton, behind a screen, and mistaken by Ford and his band for Falstaff. The scene ends with Falstaff tipped into the river, but, still believing in Mrs Ford's love for him, he is lured into a supposed assignation at midnight in Windsor Forest. There he is tormented by what he supposes to be fairies. In the end, while Fenton and Nannetta are united and Dr Caius frustrated, Falstaff accepts what has happened stoically.

Viva la Verdi For Giuseppe, timing is everything; there is something to be said on how the composer developed artistally to which the opera becomes a result of his progression. Rather than composing thoroughly over a smaller period of time, Verdi seemed to complete smaller pieces in short outburst, then leaving it for elongated periods. Many scenes were finished out of order, which is evident in the independent musical structure to which each specific scene conveys. In comparison to his early and middle works, the late works: Otello, Macbeth, and Aida, to name a few, are in a certain league of their own. This is partially attributed to the freedom to compose for himself and not for commission, as well as his use of more contemporary composition devices. Although two totally different artists (with two totally different personalities) musicologists study the comparison between Verdi and Richard Wagner, coming to the conclusion that Wagner's musical and contextual opinions on opera most likely had an some sort of an influence on Verdi in his late years. This, however, is a discussion for another day. What we can take from Falstaff ostensibly is how seamless the music flows from scena to scena- from "recit" to aria, duet, octet, etc. Long gone are the days where acts are divided by song numbers. In fact, the only sense of division we have is in between the acts, each divided into two parts. This is a wonderful challenge for directors and performers alike, but a challenge, none the less.

The Shakespearean State of Mind

As if the music itself isn't beautiful enough, the words behind the melodies are also coherent with the needs of mind and of the heart. Merry Wives of Windsor (to which the opera was centrally based on) was first published in 1602, with first reports of its forthcomings around 1597. It is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and is also one of the few stories that he did not write in verse. Considering the fact that it has a more humble setting, plot theme, and character dynamic (upper/mid-class and NOT royalty), this makes sense. Like many of his works, Merry Wives centralizes on social class, gender, love, marriage and revenge. Comedic elements come from the use of irony, innuendos, and sarcasm. What makes it special from Shakespeare's dramas is the lighthearted mockery of these issues of which could be as comedic as they could be dramatic. Think about it, we are devastated at the actions of Othello due to his jealousy, yet we laugh at the actions of Ford, who has the same motivations. We endure the power of Lady Macbeth through rage and manipulation, yet experience the power of Alice, Meg, Nannetta and Quickly through dexterousness and confidence... This brings us to the fat man himself. Appearing in Merry Wives and both parts of Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff is regarded as one of the greatest comedic characters of all time. There is so much to say about his ridiculous antics and immoral values, leaving us to wonder whether or not he is even worthy of our sympathy. (If you did not read the plot of the opera, I suggest you at least Google the summaries of the plays.) Despite everything, we love him because we know that his intentions- and heart- are good. Iron Fisted Ingenues

When a female is cast in an ingenue type role, the biggest annoyance would be to discover that deep down, she has no personality. This is certainly not the case with Nannetta (Anne in the Shakespeare version). Despite her young age, she is just as much of a spitfire as Alice, Meg and Quickly. Her courtship with Fenton is as sweet as it is cunning; clearly she is smitten by him, yet she uses her part teasing/part timid nature to further his advances. Whether or not these feelings are sincere is subjective… The point is that Nannetta, and all of the women in this story, are the ones who are in control.

A young Anna Moffo as Nannetta

Preparation Strengths:

- Zero lack of enthusiasm for the work. After all, it IS Verdi

- Italian: My favorite foreign language to sing in

- Beautiful melodies

Preparation challenges:

- the Letter/Laughing quartet: simple at first glance, but quite the stickler to put together

- Understanding how to play Nannetta WHILE SHE is playing a fairy in Act III. #CharacterInception

- Memorizing the language thoroughly and authentically

- Vocal finesse in the middle range

(Left: a young Anna Moffo as Nannetta in 1956)

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