GIUSEPPE VERDI, if one were to take as fact the opinion of Rossini, was far "too melancholy and serious" to be able to compose a comic opera.
The remark apparently was made in the early 1850s, some four decades before the "Falstaff" that Opera Theatre of St. Louis will present on Thursday evening. And it was not entirely without foundation. Rossini understood the reasons for the stunning success of the dozen or so dramatic operas that Verdi had thus far written, and he understood as well why Verdi's single attempt at comedy had been such a dismal failure.
Verdi himself granted that his 1840 "Un giorno di regno" had been a disaster, even though it was not half so bad, he later reminisced, as what audiences of the day tolerated. Still, it galled him to hear Rossini's words echoed by critics, and it galled him all the more to see them printed - as late as 1879 - in a newsletter put out by his own publisher.
"Just a moment," he dashed off in a heated letter to the editors of the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano.
"For the last 20 years I have been searching for an opera buffa libretto. Now that I might have found one, you print an article that encourages the public to hiss it off the stage before it is even written! But don't worry. If by chance my evil genius compels me actually to finish this work, I'll find some other publisher to ruin."
Exactly what libretto Verdi had in mind remains a mystery, and nothing ever came of it. The incident does, however, point up the vital interest Verdi seems to have had in comedy at this late stage of his career.
Verdi was 65 at the time. Since the premiere of "Aida" eight years before, he had been enjoying retirement at his estate at Sant' Agata. But for Verdi, the life of the fabulously rich gentleman farmer was not altogether satisfying. He was often bored, and sometimes downright depressed. In letters to friends, he hinted that he needed something fun to do. A comic opera, he suggested, might at least inject a bit of sparkle into his otherwise dull routine.
The two projects that brought Verdi out of retirement were hardly laugh producers. One was a revision of the 1857 "Simon Boccanegra," which Verdi felt was "too sad, too desolate" in its original version. The other involved making an opera of "Othello," perhaps the darkest of Shakespeare's tragedies.
For both of these, the librettist was a young writer named Arrigo Boito. Along with being a literary genius and a composer of no mean talent, Boito apparently was gifted with keen insight into human personality. In any case, he certainly understood what Verdi needed.
Verdi's and Boito's intense collaboration on "Otello" lasted seven years, and it resulted in what many critics would argue is Verdi's greatest opera. But Verdi's morale plunged after the triumphant premiere. For as long as the work remained in progress, Verdi wrote, "I was not conscious of fatigue and I did not feel my age. But now?. . . The place that `Otello' occupied within me was so large that I feel an enormous void, which I think I shall never be able to fill. …