From the beginning of time, older people have thought that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. It is practically a trademark of age. I get into this mood, from time to time: “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” Then I lighten up and smile (for a while).
When I’m in a hell-in-a-handbasket mood, I quote Falstaff—not from Shakespeare but from Verdi (or his librettist, Boito): “Mondo reo. Non c’è più virtù. Tutto declina.” Wicked world. There is no longer virtue. Everything is in decline.
I quoted these words in a column last June, commenting, “I know what you mean, fat boy.”
Again feeling grumpy—very—I jotted the below tweet, a few days ago:
Our culture, society, and politics have gone down down down. It’s like a giant, national race to the bottom. (We have had our technical and other achievements, to be sure.) I know all older people talk this way. “Tutto declina,” says Verdi’s Falstaff. But what if it's true?
Yeah, but what if it’s true?!
Frequently, I quote Charles Rosen, the late pianist-scholar: “The death of classical music is perhaps the oldest tradition of classical music.” In every generation, people think that music is dying. This is it, folks. That’s all she wrote. It’s curtains. And yet, music never dies. It marches on, loved and nurtured by a few, at least—by a healthy minority.
Yeah, but what if, someday, it really is curtains? Some of us occasionally fall prey to these “night thoughts,” as David Pryce-Jones would say.
In any event, a musician went after me on Twitter, saying I didn’t know Falstaff, I didn’t know what I was talking about, other people should come down on me and school me, etc. I need not get into details. You perhaps know what social-media passions are like.
I’ve been thinking about an experience—a wonderful experience—I had in 2016. I went to Chicago, to see Riccardo Muti rehearse and perform Falstaff. And to talk with him about the opera. (Muti, as you know, is an eminent Italian conductor, who is the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.) The resulting piece is here.
Muti learned Falstaff from his teacher, Antonino Votto. I will quote from my piece:
The veteran maestro [Votto] knew the work cold. He could have written it down from first page to last, if called on to do so. Young Muti asked him, “Maestro, how is it possible that you know this opera so well?” Votto answered, “You would too, if you had worked with him.” The him in question was Toscanini. Votto was his assistant during the 1920s.
I will quote some more:
Falstaff relates to Verdi’s life, says Muti. It’s an extremely personal work. For 50 years, Verdi had written operas for the public—on commission, on deadline, etc. This one was for him, for his own purposes. He was feeling morose at this stage of life.
Some of us can relate!
He had had his glory, but he had also faced much criticism. Wagner had captured the fancy of the so-called intellectuals in Italy; they regarded Verdi as provincial and passé. Who was he, who could write only simple melodies with an oompah-pah accompaniment?
He answered his critics in Falstaff, which brims with compositional sophistication. It both borrows from the past and points toward the future.
Let’s now get to the nitty-gritty:
At the end of Falstaff, we get an ensemble that declares, “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” i.e., “Everything in the world is a joke, a trick, a big fat farce. Nothing matters, and you can’t trust anyone.” Falstaff is regarded as a comedy, which it surely is. But it’s also laced with pain—and Muti sees the opera as more sad than happy.
“Guilty, rotten world!” says Falstaff, when the “merry wives” have dumped him into the Thames. “There is no longer virtue. Everything declines. Go, old John. Be on your way. Keep walking till you die.” That is Verdi, says Muti: That is how Verdi felt. “I insist, because I have dedicated my life to this composer, that Falstaff is Verdi, in all aspects.”
One final bit of quoting, if you don’t mind:
In Falstaff, we have the real McCoy, says Muti: the real Verdi. His genuine self comes through.
One more final bit of quoting, if you don’t mind:
Near the end of our breakfast, I ask Muti, “Is Falstaff a perfect opera, in your opinion? Is there anything wrong with it?” He answers, “I’m nobody to make such a judgment, but, for me, it’s perfect.”
As I explain in my piece, I never loved Falstaff—always respected it, of course, and was even in awe of it. But loved it, no. When the penny dropped, however, it really, really dropped. (I had a similar experience with Wagner—Wagner in general—when I was in my thirties, or even into my forties.) The more you live with Falstaff—the more you know it—the richer and greater it becomes. Like many a great work, Falstaff is subject to varying interpretations. How you feel about a work can change, over time (as you change).
Anyway, Falstaff is great, Verdi is great—and when you combine Verdi with Shakespeare (think of Macbeth and Otello, too): watch out.