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
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
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
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. …