Monday, December 16, 2013

Falstaff - Comedy or Tragedy

When I was an undergrad English student, my favorite professor (Sarah Youngblood, God bless her) remarked in passing that in many ways comedy is more profound than
tragedy. At the time, in all my adolescent anxieties, I could not accept that; I couldn’t understand how that could possibly be. But the remark stayed with me, and now that I have stopped mentally shaking my fist at the cosmos, I know it is perfectly true. To me, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest and Pericles are profounder plays than Othello. But great comedy always seems to be undervalued, not by audiences but by the analytical intelligentsia.

Is the same thing true in opera? Perhaps not. Music seems made to express the wails of grief and anguish and amorous desire more easily than it does the wit and social interaction of comedy. One simply has to look at the repertoire to see how the tragic operas outnumber the comedies. After Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, how many great comic operas are there? Falstaff, Meistersinger, maybe The Bartered Bride, Gianni Schicchi?

But Falstaff brings it off, and it touches the depths in two particular moments in the last act. When Falstaff realizes he’s been duped, he makes his great apologia of acceptance:

io che vi fa scaltri –

mia crea l’arguzia degli altri.

am the one who makes them witty –

humor creates the humor of the others.

And after that, the magnificent fugue, vivace, Verdi’s great farewell to the stage and to life:

nel mondo e burla.

The world is all a joke.

Is Falstaff Verdi’s greatest opera? Perhaps not. Does it matter? Only if you insist on making a competition out of everything. And Falstaff is that invaluable rarity, a comic operatic masterpiece.

POSTSCRIPT: I thought the performances on Saturday were superlative all around. Ambrogio Maestri was obviously born to the role, and he has mastered it. I loved the Carson production in the first act, rich in comic detailing. But the forest scene lacked sufficient magic. The wooden walls were out of place, the stars in the backdrop not enough, there was no quercia, no children . . . . But I was moved to tears of joy anyway, by Verdi’s music. The only thing I hold against Verdi’s comedy is that it has all but obliterated Otto Nicolai’s lesser masterpiece, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Has anyone seen it done?

Stephen J. Adams
Department of English
University of Western Ontario

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love."

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