- The Plays of Art Are for a Playful Art:History, Puzzles, and Play in Verdi’s Falstaff
Before the action of Verdi's last opera begins, Falstaff's two untrustworthy companions, Bardolfo and Pistola, have shamelessly picked the pockets of their drinking companion Dr Caius. When the doctor takes them to task in the opening scene for doing such a deed, they mock his oath never again to drink with them in a pompous ceremony borrowed from the church. 'Amen!' they exclaim one after the other, in a long rhapsody of 'A' sounds (see example 1).
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In this little phrase not only the word 'Amen' makes reference to the church: so does the music. Singing many notes to one syllable, with two equally important melodic lines pitted against each other, was a technique typical of church music; indeed, imitative counterpoint was a hallmark of sacred music in the sixteenth century. The reference to sacred music is not the only one in Falstaff. The church returns in the final scene of the opera, when Falstaff has been tricked into being afraid of a fictitious Black Hunter [End Page 740] and supernatural elves. This time it is the Merry Wives who do the mocking, intoning a short liturgy for Falstaff's soul. They do so by using a liturgical antiphon, a call and response pattern commonly heard in church: the Merry Wives sing a first half of a phrase, 'God make him chaste,' and Falstaff responds, 'But save his stomach.'
What might it mean when techniques from church music appear in the worldly domain of an opera? Why would an opera composer use them? Sacred music styles rarely appear in Verdi's earlier works, or in those of any other Italian opera composer. But the sacred style is just one of many non-operatic styles to appear in Falstaff. The opening scene has been analysed as a complex musical form common in instrumental music - sonata form - almost unheard of in nineteenth-century Italian opera (see Linthicum). The young lover Fenton serenades his sweetheart Nannetta not with a standard aria but rather with an off-the-cuff Italian sonnet. Fenton and Nannetta finally marry to the accompaniment of an old French court dance, a minuet. And the opera closes, famously, with another Baroque technique, a fugue, in which voices enter one after the other. Each extract is radically different from the last. Falstaff, in other words, is massively eclectic in musical terms: different styles appear in quick succession, moving rapidly between those heard not only in the opera house, but at the symphony, and in the church.
As Linda and Michael Hutcheon point out in their article on Verdi's late style, this combination of styles signals that something very strange is going on in Falstaff. Earlier nineteenth-century operas employed a more or less strict alternation of recitatives and arias - recitatives moving the action on with their dramatic declamation and arias providing moments where characters could express their innermost feelings as well as show off their voices. Each aria, while putting forth a new beautiful melody, was of a standard style; in very early nineteenth-century opera, arias had even been interchangeable according to the whim of the singer. This constancy of style and structure was the environment in which Verdi had grown up, matured, and written his first operas. Falstaff constitutes a radical departure from this consistency. The alternation of recitative and aria is much less clear; the two blend into each other rather than stand separately. In the entire opera, only two solos are true 'arias' in the traditional sense, and these are both the domain of the lovers, Fenton and Nannetta. The other long solos - Falstaff's in act 3, and Ford's in act 2 - are unusual declamatory monologues lacking the bel canto elements of traditional arias. The point may be well made with reference to Ford's long solo passage in act 2. At this moment in the opera, Ford suspects Falstaff of having an affair with his wife, and indulges in a long soliloquy, the...