MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Will Get Fooled Again: Verdi’s Humanist Farewell

Giuseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

At least we know Giuseppe Verdi was a Libra. But no one knows for sure whether his actual birthday 200 years ago was October 9 or 10 — and why shouldn’t he get two birthdays in this year celebrating his legacy?

For my own little tribute, here’s an essay I just wrote for Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming production of Falstaff:

Whoever laughs last, laughs best—or, in the more elegant formulation by Arrigo Boito, author of Falstaff’s libretto: Ma ride ben chi ride / La risata finale. And in more than half a century of writing for the stage, Verdi has the last laugh with the ultimate joke: a fugue, that emblem of a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, academic, Teutonic sensibility, a virtual non-sequitur vis-à-vis the Italian operatic tradition he had inherited.

Yet the fugal capstone to Falstaff is a perfect and ingenious choice, theatrically and musically. After Sir John has been punked and had his drubbings, he’s the one who leads off the fugal chain reaction, as the entire ensemble joins to celebrate our shared humanity. Itamar Moses’ 2005 play Bach at Leipzig attempted to dramatize the fugue’s inherent theatricality—the way it wrests reconciliation from entanglement—but Verdi’s merry pranksters buoyantly sail free of any regrets, proving the power of his art to set the world right (at least for the illusory moments until the house lights come back on). Jester and jest become one. The rigorous form morphs into a bubbly champagne, ending with the orchestra’s zippy final chords. If Verdi alludes to the choral setting-things-straight culmination of Don Giovanni, he also seems to hint at the clear blue skies of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony—albeit his is a punch-drunk Jove.

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Filed under: opera, Verdi

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