- Verdi’s Last Laugh:Parody as Late Style in Falstaff
In 1863, in Milan, Italy, a twenty-one-year-old rebellious poet and composer wrote an ode excoriating (as young bohemians will) what he considered the provincial and old-fashioned art of his country. He read his ode at a banquet in honour of his good friend, Franco Faccio, whose first opera had just premiered. The poem included this rather strong image - intended as praise for the young Faccio: 'Perhaps the man is already born who, modest and pure, will restore art to its altar - now stained like a brothel wall' (Osborne, Letters, 133). The successful fifty-year-old Giuseppe Verdi, composer of twenty-four operas up to this point, could not help feeling he was being targeted and was duly insulted by this image of Italian art as besmirched. The irony is that the radical young poet and composer who penned the ode was none other than Arrigo Boito, who, twenty years later, would become Verdi's last - and, some would say, best - librettist. A member of the notorious group of post-Romantic progressives known as the Scapigliati or the 'dishevelled ones,' Boito believed that the rejuvenation of Italian opera would come with the uniting of the various arts to create the 'art of the future.' The partial echo here of Richard Wagner's 1849 essay 'The Art-Work of the Future' is not accidental, for the Scapigliati were as impressed by Wagner and his musical innovations as Verdi was not.
Verdi felt he had good reason to be slighted by the young man's remarks, for the two had worked together well just the year before, when Boito provided the text for Verdi's 'Hymn to the Nations.' Understandably, then, sixteen years later, after Franco Faccio had become Verdi's conductor of choice (another of those historical ironies that haunt this particular story), Verdi was somewhat resistant to his suggestion that Boito do a libretto of Shakespeare's Othello for the composer; he was also sixty-six years old and ready to slow down, perhaps even to stop writing operas completely. When his conductor and his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, pressured him, Verdi finally agreed, but not without considerable reluctance, a reluctance that would not dissipate totally until the triumphant premiere of Otello in 1887.
Verdi at the time was seventy-four years old, and everyone, including the composer, assumed this would be his last opera. The reviews reflect- ed this assumption. Blanche Roosevelt, an American singer and writer, [End Page 750] announced that the artist was 'more Verdi than ever' and labelled the opera 'the last work of a great man' (quoted in Busch, Verdi's 'Otello,' 725, 727). Had this been Verdi's last opera, then everyone would have seen Otello as the crowning achievement of a master of tragic opera. Camille Bellaigue wrote in the Revue des deux mondes on 1 March 1887: 'Never has a more constant glory shed its rays for a longer time upon a human brow. He has known neither shadow nor decline, and his star will go out as upon those blessed horizons that do not know the sadness of twilight and retain until the final hour all the splendour of their sun' (quoted in Busch, Verdi's 'Otello,' 701).
To see the last work, as so many did in this case, as an apotheosis, as the culmination of a career, as an aesthetic and philosophical summation is to see old age as the time of reappraisal and synthesis and to see the late artist as being in the fullness of his powers. It is thanks to the musings upon age and creativity of the long-lived German writer, Goethe, that there existed in Europe at this time a positive model for the aging artist (see Schrimpf). With age came contemplation, greater life experience, more spiritual insight, and enhanced powers of understanding - all leading not only to technical advancement but also, implied Goethe, to epiphany, metaphysical transcendence, a withdrawal from outer appearances, and an emphasis on essentials (Arnheim, 149-53; Barone, 144; Rosand, 92). By the time of Otello's premiere, this was the...