Ma Ride Ben Chi Ride la Risata Final: Verdi and the Fusion of Genres

         Tutto nel mondo é burla. 
          L’uom é nato burlone, 
          La fede in cor gli ciurla, 
          Gli ciurla la ragione. 
          Tutti gabbati! Irride 
          L’un l’altro ogni mortal. 
          Ma ride ben chi ride 
          La risata final.

Final text from the Libretto of “Falstaff”

FalstaffFalstaff:  to end with a comedy

When I first started studying Verdi’s operas, I for some strange reason steered away from Falstaff.  When you’re a teenager, you think you know what you’re doing, so I decided it would be a good idea to read through the synopsis of the operas and see which one I wanted to listen to next, without any sort of regard for when those works were written and which period they belonged to.  For whatever reason, the idea of Falstaff did not interest me, which is ironic since it is one of the operas I most devoted my time two during my PhD studies. At the time, learning the repertoire meant immersing myself in the larger-than-life stories, the dramatic largess of the characters, and the fabulously delicious unhappy endings that many of the operas culminated in.  Again…a teenager.  The idea of listening to a comedy by Verdi…not so interesting….or so I thought.

To end with a comedy:

After the multitude of operas Verdi wrote that were based on everything from “la patria” to “figlia mia,” the very notion that he ended with a comedy is not only a significant statement, but a cause for historians to look at Falstaff more closely.  Furthermore, that he collaborated on the opera with his one-time rival, Arrigo Boito is incredibly telling.  Earlier in their massive correspondence, Verdi had written “There is no place in Italian Music for Germanic forms.” By this he meant the more symphonic idioms that Boito had been promoting in and around Milano, such as the fugue.  Boito had used a Fuga Infernale in Mefistofele but later abandoned the idea in order to make his opera more conventional and acceptable.  That Verdi ended his illustrious career with a Fugue is fascinating to say the least.

What is more, the final text, as written above, suggests that in composing Falstaff, Verdi got the last laugh.  What does this mean, exactly?  The way I see it, after assessing much of the musico-political situation in Milano, Verdi was powerful, but more powerful than him was Giulio Ricordi and the Ricordi Enterprise, who had often made specific and well-known commentary to composers like Giacomo Puccini to “write in the Italian way,” or else–so to speak.  Both primary and secondary documents describe how very involved Ricordi was with the composition of operas in Italy after the Risorgimento and especially with those composers who were the highest regarded in his company.  It is very likely that Ricordi, in addition to the censors, had placed constraints on Verdi, and it seemed as though Verdi continued to compose traditionally until the Messa da Requiem and Aida.  His late period of works, then are more interesting musicologically than this earlier works because of the shift in compositional style to a more through-composed one, but Falstaff–a comedy that ends with a fugue, is probably the most vividly different than anything Verdi had composed before and makes one wonder what he might have composed next.


Giulio Ricordi

The Fusion of Genres

During my studies I came across a seminal article by historian Piero Weiss entitled, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (vol. 35/1) Spring 1982, pp. 138-156, that not only caught my attention but illuminated several mysterious aspects of Verdi’s compositional impetus.  Weiss describes how as early as Luisa Miller, Verdi had desired to bring comedy into his operas.  Weiss quotes a statement of Verdi’s on the subject:

Prolonged experience has confirmed me in the ideas I’ve always had concerning theatrical effect, although in my first years I had not the courage to manifest them, except in part. (For instance, I shouldn’t have risked writing Rigoletto ten years ago.) I find our opera2errs on the side of excessive monotony, so much so that today I should refuse to set such subjects as Nabucco,Foscari,etc. etc. They present dramatic moments of great interest, but no variety. They harp on only one string, a lofty one, if you like, yet always the same one. To make my meaning clearer: Tasso’s poem may possibly be better, but I much, much prefer Ariosto. For the same reason I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists, not excepting the Greeks. It seems to me the best subject I have set to music so far, from the point of view of effect (I don’t at all mean to allude to its literary or poetic merit), is Rigoletto.It has very powerful situations, variety, verve, pathos. (Alessandro Pascolato, ed., Re Lear e Ballo in maschera: lettere di Giuseppe Verdi ad 

Antonio Somma (Citta’di Castello, 1902), pp. 45-46).



It is not new to historians that Verdi had a fascination for Shakespeare, who often infused moments of comic relief in his tragedies and vice-versa, but of course the fusion of genres was not allowed in post-Risorgimento Italy.  For Verdi, the notion of combing comedy and tragedy made the subject matter more “human,” more “realistic,” however it appears that he was not able to effect this as he wished to. Interestingly, his idol, Alessandro Manzoni was the one who promoted the separation of genres and so had Verdi veered from what was “acceptable” it would have meant going against the idiomatic practices of his idol.When Verdi wrote Macbeth, according to Weiss, he modelled it exactly on Shakespeare’s, except for one very important detail.  “

The one moment of comedy in the play, the Porter’s scene, was omitted as a matter of course, coming immediately after the knocking of the gate, it probably would have stopped the opera dead in its tracks.” (Weiss, 142).

And what of the character of Rigoletto, is he not a jester?  In essence he is, however, Rigoletto never once sings comic music.  His “La Ra La Ra’s” are not comedic.  They descend in a minor pattern, and indicate his strife more than his comic thrust.


More fascinating is the notion that the separation of genres affected Verdi’s composing of King Lear.  There has been much discussion about the “discarded” opera and in lieu of Verdi’s struggles against the censors and especially with this issue, he could not possibly have gotten away with writing an opera whose main character is “a fool,” without crossing lines that he was not yet willing to cross.  One wonders what King Lear would have sounded like.


Taking these details into consideration, it is even more amazing that Verdi ended his operatic smorgasbord with a comedy.  It’s almost like someone is a vegetarian their entire life and then on their last day, they decide to eat meat.  Fascinating indeed, but then Verdi was not a typical man.  He was a man of great determination and in the end, he certainly got his last laugh.  VIVA VERDI!!!

Enjoy the complete opera “Falstaff”

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