Boito’s “Falstaff”

Iain Scott provides an introduction to Verdi’s swan-song

ARIAS MAGAZINE – NOVEMBER 2003
(The Magazine of the COC Volunteer Committee)

There must be a mistake: don’t we mean Verdi’s “Falstaff”? When we speak of operas, especially those adapted from well known literary works, don’t we always credit the composer? Don’t we talk of Gounod’s “Faust” or Tchaikowsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, in part to differentiate them from their models by Goethe or Pushkin? Who cares who the librettist was? Even if you can, smugly, name the librettists of either of those works, or even of Aida, Bohème or Carmen — go on, quickly now, try it! — how many could sustain even an elevator conversation on any one of them?

Verdi, of course, cared a lot. At the La Scala premiere of “Falstaff” in 1893, the ovation for the eighty year-old maestro was deafening. He had produced something so novel, so un-traditional, so unexpected, that the world was truly in awe. Verdi insisted that young Arrigo Boito should join him on stage. Here was more than the great man’s librettist: here was nothing less than his co-creator. Verdi wanted to publicly acknowledge that the miracle of their “Falstaff” could neither have been conceived nor completed without one of the most extraordinary partnerships in the history of opera.

It was an unlikely combination, given the thirty year difference in their ages and the reclusive Verdi’s suspicion of someone he felt had once slighted him. With the aid of Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Riccordi and the quiet encouragement of Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, Boito little by little won Verdi’s grudging respect, then his friendship. It was a process which took many years, but he intuitively and practically understood Verdi’s needs. A composer himself, he knew what subjects, situations, characterization and even poetic metres could spark Verdi’s musical inspiration. They also had a common viewpoint on the direction in which Italian opera could develop — with a diminished emphasis on formulae and grater attention to the drama of human interactions.

Knowing they shared a deep admiration for Shakespeare, Boito initiated the process of composition for each of the twin miracles of Verdi’s old age, Otello and Falstaff. It was his brilliance in reducing, adapting and reforming the characters and situations of the Shakespearean plays that convinced Verdi that he could return to the compositional table. It was his encouragement that persuaded the old man to undertake the greatest artistic risk of his life, to write a comedy, almost devoid of arias, in a style that defied all traditional expectations of Italian opera. Verdi was at last able to write for himself. The results were exhilarating.

What made their collaboration unusual was that it succeeded in exemplifying the elusive ideals underlying every partnership. They stimulated or even inspired each other. A case could be made that Boito was the dominant partner and should get the lion’s share of the credit for their joint success. In this relationship, it was Boito who was the initiator, the catalyst, even the subtle driver of Verdi’s genius.

It is very rare for a librettist to be acknowledged, either by a composer or the public, as a co-equal. Nowadays, the role of the librettist is often perceived as, and usually billed as secondary. I was surprised to discover, in the most comprehensive study to date of the librettist’s art, “The Tenth Muse” by the Metropolitan Opera’s Patrick J Smith, that the librettist used to get top billing. If you look, for example, at an original poster for an opera from the mid 19th century, the librettist’s name is most prominent. The poster for the premiere of “Rigoletto” for example, says it is “an opera by Francesco Maria Piave”. Then, in much smaller letters, are the words, “music by Giuseppe Verdi”.

Why is it that, outside of the inner artistic circle, librettists are rarely acknowledged as fully-fledged partners? In opera, when double-barreled names are used, they are most frequently associated with title characters, usually doomed lovers, such as Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde. It is different in musical comedy and on Broadway. Starting with Gilbert and Sullivan (note -librettist’s name first!) there has been a long series of equally-billed creative names, including Rogers and Hammerstein, or Lerner and Lowe. Why is this so? On the matter of appreciation, perhaps audiences are distanced to some degree from the structure and craftsmanship of the text. Our unfamiliarity with foreign languages is a barrier, although even when an opera is given in English and with Surtitles, it is difficult to appreciate all the subtleties of poetic metres or rhyme schemes. When it comes to the perception of a subordinated role, I suspect an unintended consequence of one of those hotly debated, but inescapable theories of art proposed by Richard Wagner. He believed that only the creations of a single mind had merit in art. Those produced by partnerships were diminished. Whenever one person conceives a story, another dramatizes it, a third creates the poetry, a fourth sets a text to music, and a fifth creates the staging, there will be a potential for spoiled broth.

The partnership of Boito with Verdi ranks with the other two extraordinary collaborations in opera — those of Lorenzo da Ponte with Mozart and of Hugo von Hofmannsthal with Richard Strauss. In all three duos, the calibre of the stagecraft, pacing, characterization and dramatic motivation in the texts are as admired as the music they inspired.

Boito became one of Verdi’s few trusted friends. He was thrilled when Verdi chose his elder brother Camillo as the architect of Verdi’s proudest achievement, the Casa di Reposo, a rest home for retired musicians in Milan.

There were other schemes after Falstaff, but Verdi finally acknowledged that he did not have the energy to sustain another mammoth project. Boito was at Verdi?s side when he died in 1901, passing away himself in 1918.

When we thank God for the miracle of Falstaff, we must always remember that it was Boito who was God’s agent — it was his idea, his drive and focus which made it happen. Viva Verdi! And Bravo Boito!