29 June 2015 at 12.14pm | Comment on this article
Verdi’s final masterpiece Falstaff is famous more for its seamless transitions between solo sections and ensembles than for its arias. Those few that it has – take Ford’s ‘È sogno o realità?’, or even Fenton’s ‘Dal labbro il canto’ and his lover Nannetta’s ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio’ – are unconventional. Most unusual is Falstaff’s exquisite, tiny aria ‘Quand’ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk’ in Act II scene 2. Clocking in at around forty seconds it may be opera’s shortest aria, but audiences have loved it since it was first encored at Falstaff’s premiere in 1893.
Falstaff sings the aria to Alice Ford, whom he hopes to seduce. Alice responds to the knight’s attentions with restrained amusement. When he becomes ardent, calling her ‘Sirena!’ (enchantress), she primly reminds him that she is married. And when, to surging strings, Falstaff all but explodes in an enthusiastic ‘T’amo! E non è mia colpa’ (I love you! And I’m not to blame), she ironically completes his sentence: ‘Se tanta avete vulnerabi polpi’ (...if your considerable flesh is weak!). Throughout their rapid banter the music moves rapidly from key to key, but settles in A major for the aria, as Falstaff recalls how he was slim – once.
Verdi’s librettist Boito made the brilliant decision to draw not only on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor but also on the arguably more vivid writing from the Henry IV plays. ‘Quand’ero paggio’ has its chief origins in a wonderful evocation of youth by Falstaff in Henry IV Part I, Act II scene 4: ‘When I was about thy years, Hal [Prince Henry, the future Henry V], I was not an eagle’s talon in the waist; I could have crept into any alderman’s thumb-ring’. Boito deftly transforms the phrase from an older man’s boast to his young protégé into a charming (if futile) seduction device.
Boito delights in language in this aria: with elegant rhymes such as ‘snello’ (slender) and ‘anello’ (ring); and in the variety of words he uses for slimness, including ‘sottile’ (slim), ‘smilzo’ (lean) and ‘flessibile’ (supple). He makes use of a courtly, rather old-fashioned Italian (inspired by the Renaissance writer Boccaccio) to evoke the appropriate period ambience. Only one small thing mars the text for English ears: Boito accents the second syllable of ‘Norfolk’. He admitted to Verdi that he knew this was incorrect, but felt that the correct pronunciation would spoil his verse structure.
Verdi’s musical setting perfectly complements Boito’s elegant text. The aria is only 24 bars in length, written in ternary (ABA) form, with the reprise of the A section subtly altered and compressed. The brisk tempo perfectly suggests the young Falstaff’s rapid and graceful movements. For the first few bars, Falstaff is accompanied only by the lightest of strings, marked pianississimo (extremely quiet). Verdi’s delicate repetitions of the words ‘sottile’ and ‘gentile’ (kindly) convey Falstaff’s gentle nostalgia for his attractive youth.
The orchestral texture grows richer as Falstaff recollects the joys of ‘mio verde Aprile’ and ‘mio lieto Maggio’ (my green April, my happy May) before thinning out (appropriately) as he describes how he was once thin enough to slip through a ring. For the compressed reprise, flutes chuckle along to Falstaff’s boast ‘ero sottile’ (I was slim), and warm-toned strings accompany his final flourishing tribute to his youthful elegance and gentle manners. In his Royal Opera production, director Robert Carsen ironically contrasts Falstaff’s memories with his present corpulent self by having Falstaff carve a chicken as he sings – serving himself the lion’s share.
Sir John Falstaff may be a rogue, but passages such as this charming mini-aria show him to be a very endearing one. Whatever his vices, he has an abundance of wit and joy in life; so it’s not surprising that he has become one of the best-loved characters in opera.
Falstaff runs 6–18 July 2015. Tickets are still available.