Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Old Man's Challenge

Verdi's Otello opened at La Scala on February 5, 1887. Verdi would have been 73. It was the capstone of a great career. Many Verdians would have endorsed it as his greatest achievement.

They say that one of the governing principles for a respectable old age is to leave the party before you hear the sirens. But one more project lured Verdi on after Otello: by 1890, in his 77th year, we find him at work on what would in fact be his last opera—Falstaff—in collaboration with his indispensable librettist, Arrigo Boito.

The decision to go forward was not automatic. “Did you never think of the enormous number of my years?” Verdi wrote to his collaborator. “Suppose I couldn't stand the strain? And failed to finish it? You would then have wasted your time and trouble to no purpose.”

Boito's response is a model of subtle persuasion:
The fact is that I never think of your age either when I'm talking to you or when I'm writing to you or when I'm working with you.

The fault is yours.

I know that Otello is little more than two years old, and that even as I am writing to you it is being appreciated as it should by Shakespeare's compatriots. But there is a stronger argument than that of age, and it's this: it's been said of you after Otello: "It's impossible to finish better."This is a great truth and it enshrines a great and very rare tribute. It is the only weighty argument.

Weighty for the present generation, but not for history, which aims first and foremost to judge men by their essential merits. Nevertheless it is indeed rare to see a lifetime of artistic endeavour concludes with a worldly triumph. Otello is such a triumph. All the other arguments—age, strength, hard work for me, hard work for you, etc., etc.are not valid and place no obstacle in the way of a new work. Since you oblige me to talk about myself I shall say that notwithstanding the commitment I should be taking on with Falstaff I shall be able to finish my work within the term promised. I'm sure of that.

I don't think that writing a comedy should tire you out. A tragedy causes its author genuinely to suffer; one's thoughts undergo a suggestion of sadness which renders the nerves morbidly sensitive. The jokes and laughter of comedy exhilarate mind and body. ... 
You have a great desire to work, and this is an indubitable proof of health and strength. "Ave Marias" are not enough. Something else is needed.

All your life you've wanted a good subject for a comic opera, and that is a sign that the vein of an art that is both joyous and noble is virtually in existence in your brain; instinct is a wise counsellor. There's only one way to finish better than with Otello and that's to finish triumphantly with Falstaff.

After having sounded all the shrieks and groans of the human heart, to finish with a mighty burst of laughter—that is to astonish the world.

So you see, dear Maestro, it's worth thinking about the subject I've sketched; see whether you can feel in it the germ of the new masterpiece. If the germ is there, the miracle is accomplished.
And Verdi:
Amen, so be it!

We'll write Falstaff then! We won't think for the moment of obstacles or age or illness! ...
Falstaff opened on February 9, 1890, just a few months shy of Verdi's 80th birthday.   It was to be his last opera, although he continued to compose until as late as 1897.  He died in 1901, at 87.

Update:  Apologies for neglecting to credit this. It's almost entirely a ripoff from  the indispensable Operas of Verdi by Julian Budder, vol. III 424-6 (1984).

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