More Falstaff

The following thoughts on Falstaff I find, today, scrawled into the NotePad of my Palm:

“The idea of comedy where the serious character is the one you DON’T care about. Depth of character for the fool. The most ironic utterances are sometimes the most beautiful.”

Irony and beauty are not often coupled; fools are often cardboard.

In your typical Hollywood script, and in many sitcoms, the characters–like those of comic opera–are divided into buffa and seria; in your high school film, for instance, the nerds (with whom, of course, I sympathize) are buffa; they never really get girls in the end, or become central to the drama; they are around, like props, for variety and reality, and particularly for comic relief. Of course there are the films where a nerd “redeems” himself, though please observe (!) the cautionary fable of Ducky, who originally was to obtain his longtime love, Molly Ringwald: test audiences found this disappointing, and the ending was changed. So if a nerd is to pass from buffa to seria, he has to be somewhat ambiguous to begin with, he has to be a non-nerd trapped in a nerd style (a “transgender” nerd); if he is truly nerdy, like Ducky, he cannot find love.

Moreover: we do not “care” if the nerds find love; their fates are incidental. The narrative tie-up requires only that the seria characters become happy (or unhappy, or dead). The others are just around for color commentary.

This is also true, say, of Don Giovanni (“the greatest opera ever written”). Leporello sticks around, persistently humorous, from beginning to end; he witnesses murders, seductions, apparitions, flaming damnation, and remains unchanged. He is wallpaper. If Leporello were to find his soulmate, or undergo some sort of epiphany, it would be odd, for this reason: he does not have a soul, the genre has given him an exemption from soul-hood. But, you might say, Leporello is the “soul of the comedy”! This is true; the spirit of the opera would be so much less if he were absent. So why is it, then, that the depth he helps to lend the work of art is not reflected in his character? There is a discrepancy here, an artifice, a disconnect.

Enter Falstaff. Impossibly fat, broke, and (by the way) no spring chicken, he comes courting beautiful Alice at 2 in the afternoon, while her well-to-do husband is away. It is all a scam, of course; Alice is tricking him; she plays at the rituals of flirtation with him, mocking him (he is unaware of the mockery yet–his greatest folly of all). But the music mostly does not caricature; from the opening chords of the serenading guitar, Verdi provides unusually and unique beauties, inspirations one would be proud to have in a “serious” love scene … For instance when Falstaff offers her jewels, and Alice sings “Every jewel dims my beauty — I hate false golden idols./I need but a veil, some bauble at my waist, a flower in my hair.” One could savor every detail of this flirtatious/modest moment–the delicate arc of the vocal line, the perfectly calculated chromatic inner voices, the color of the accompanying winds–a perfect phrase which “flickers its wings once, and is gone.” She is flirting with him; it is ironic because it is false; but it is too beautiful to be just deception. Who is intervening and making this comic scene so beautiful? Does Alice want her show to be convincing? Or does she need, even in jest, to be irresistible? Or is it a composer’s need here? One senses an allusion (a nostalgic nod) to all the love scenes that have ever been written, a kind of beckoning; Alice’s “play at love” intersects with Verdi’s desire to survey the landscape he has covered so often. Both are observers: Alice the married woman, Verdi the 80-year-old man; both, in a sense, schemers caught up in their own schemes.

And then Falstaff reminisces about his youth, when he was so slender … here is enormous Falstaff, singing delicately, pianissimo, leggiero–about the inconceivable person he used to be. But the music again is not sharply mocking, it does not take the obvious route; it is gentle, lithe, beautiful, and therefore heartbreaking; the ironic disconnect (the “humor”) is simultaneously a perception of change, of time’s changes on the human body; for a moment Falstaff IS his young, handsome self, strutting (Falstaff as icon of human imagination, perserverance in face of reality, change).

By contrast, the opera’s seria lovers have no such beautifying irony. Their music is just lush, uncomplicated (also deliberately repetitive–atemporal, corresponding to their lack of experience, of sobering reality). It seems, in context, to be too ardent, too poetic … an attitude reinforced when Verdi cruelly interrupts their climactic love duet at the beginning of the final scene for some comic business (“enough of this, we’ve heard it all.”) They are there, they are beautiful, but they do not have the “traction,” the tension of tone, which would make us truly care.

Buffa characters have never gotten the girl; they have always made do with injustice. Verdi shines a spotlight on this fact of narrative. And he rectifies the injustice; we care about Falstaff! So much so that we might wonder why he gets such cruel treatment (my friend hates this opera for this reason.) Falstaff is a buffa character–but the opera however lacks a balancing seria character and plot. It is an opera, therefore, centrally about something odd: his non-fulfillment. Of course his non-fulfillment, personally, is the fulfillment of his role. Why do I feel, then, that Falstaff “triumphs” at the end of the opera? The fugue (how appropriate for celebration of a role, where everyone “plays his part”!) seems to be his last laugh. Or the composer’s: a celebration of play.

In Verdi’s tragic operas, there is always this pressure: the pressure to be convincing, to be real, to tear at the heart, to lay open motivations. This is the pressure of seria characters, “released” occasionally by the comic, or by spectacle. Falstaff is free of this pressure–even of the pressure to maintain a certain mood for a certain duration. Moods shift, the music ranges from whim to whim. Is this an escape from the pressure of genre, which for a moment Verdi has managed to suspend? Falstaff the man, ranging outside of buffa’s realm… absorbing the comic, the foolish, into the pantheon of sympathetic human emotions, like Sancho Panza.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>