The Big Belly comes to Lucca

He writes:

Amen; so be it! So let’s do it! For now, let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illnesses! I also want to keep the deepest secrecy: a word that I underline three times to you that no one must know anything about it! ….. The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart; I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straightjacket……Will I finish it? Or will I not finish it? Who knows! I am writing without any aim, without a goal, just to pass a few hours of the day.

He did finish it, of course. That big belly belonged to Falstaff and the music is the miraculous one of an eighty-year old Giuseppe Verdi who writes younger and fresher music at that age than many ever could achieve at twenty, and who remains ever young in this, the two-hundredth anniversary year of his birth.

The freshness of yesterday’s performance at Lucca’s Teatro Del Giglio was sustained by a youth orchestra that was fully up to the challenge. If they sound so well now then this is surely reassuring for the future of Italian orchestral playing which has not always been the country’s musical strong point.

For, of course, the most important character in Verdi’s opera is the orchestra – commenting sometimes sarcastically, sometimes stentorianly, sometimes sensuously on the singers. It would be quite possible to follow the story just listening to that orchestra without the singers – it’s almost as if Verdi is proving that those so-called “barrel-organ” accompaniments he is accused of by sniffy critics never really were in his line and also, that there is an alternative to Wagner….

In Falstaff the composer breaks into new ground, laying before us a blueprint for all future operatic discourse in the century to follow. At the same time, there are many points where Verdi parodies– for example in Ford’s jealousy scene – those various stylistic effects which made up the blood and thunder of the operas written, as he put it, “in the galleys”. Indeed, the best Verdi parodies are not just to be found in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas but in the man’s music itself.

As Italian verismo got its kick-off from Carmen so, listening to the orchestra, I truly believed Puccini could never have made the move from Edgar to Manon Lescaut and La Bohème without completely assimilating Verdi’s language. I cannot imagine the café Momus section in La Bohème without Falstaff’s Garter Inn scene (in this production with the ladies enticingly showing off their highly positioned stocking supports…). What utter virtuosity and brilliancy there is in Verdi’s late orchestral writing!

In that respect Puccini is truly Verdi’s successor – what a year 1893 must have been for opera lovers. For not only on the 9th February at Milan’s La Scala was Falstaff first performed but, later the same year, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut premiered at Turin’s Teatro Regio!  The following year Gustav Mahler, no less, conducted Falstaff in Hamburg, the same year of the opera’s first Covent Garden production.

To return to the Lucca performance: the singing of all the main characters was absolutely appropriate to their personalities and the singers delivered with verve in their voices and svelteness in their balletic movements. Everything, from the quickness of the ensemble patter songs to the sublimest of lyrical moments was as perfect as it can be in this imperfect world. The all-too brief love interludes between Fenton and Nanetta, which the opera’s great librettist, Boito, described as sprinkling sugar on an apple pie and scattering the whole comedy with that happy love without concentrating it at any one point brought me close to tears with their sweet intensity of emotion – surely, some of the most affective honey duets Verdi ever wrote.

Those who say they can’t find any memorable tunes in Falstaff should listen again; they just aren’t awake enough to the quickness and exhilaration of this, one of humanity’s greatest examples of its intangible heritage.

The late afternoon’s (it was a matinee – much to be preferred in Italy when evening performances start after nine) mood was infectious, with the audience truly captivated.  “Tutti gabbati” – we’re all duped – that gloriously bucolic (and, at the same time, academically correct) fugue for the finale surely signifies that not only is Falstaff game for a laugh but that the audience, too ,is conned into believing every part of the story, drawn into the illusory magic of opera. And, as Falstaff learns from his being conned, so we too – and willingly as well – are drawn into that undefinable exotic and irrational incantation, truly wishing to believe every part of the cosmic game.

And of magic there was aplenty in the Giglio’s co-production: in the costume colours, Elizabethan in inspiration but not stiff farthingales, instead, sensuous draping folds; in the scene of the oak Erne (Boito and Verdi’s English knew only double syllables for that word) which transported us into a thrashingly midwinter’s nightmare and then out again into a glorious midsummer dream with multicoloured and tasteful lighting effects.

Image projection supported this dream. How thankful we can be that digital technology can so easily help cut impossible costs in an increasingly finance-challenged art form and produce ever more startling effects. And how grateful that we have an amazing youthful talent of singers and instrumentalists in this part of the world bringing a zest for life to the truly life-enhancing creation that is Falstaff!

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