When I wrote about the opening of the San Francisco Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, I felt it important to call attention to “Verdi’s imaginative approach to instrumentation.” I shared some additional thoughts on this matter with Janos Gereben, who was kind enough to incorporate them into an item in his weekly Music News column for San Francisco Classical Voice. However, since my seat for this performance was in the Orchestra section, my experience of the activity in the orchestra pit was exclusively auditory.
Fortunately, my wife and I have subscription tickets that provide a much better view of the orchestra pit, which we used yesterday afternoon. The action on stage was as compelling and delightful as ever. However, Verdi had piqued my curiosity on opening night; and that curiosity deserved to be satisfied with “visual input” from the orchestra pit.
My observations reinforced my hypothesis that Verdi chose to highlight the extremes of Falstaff’s character through the use of extreme registers in his instrumental resources. Thus, while the strings keep the action flowing along at a healthy clip through their melodic resources, the instruments in the wind and brass sections highlight the personal traits of the characters enabling those actions. The most extreme of Verdi’s resources in this opera is the cimbasso (played by Shawn Jones), a member of the trombone family with the vertical appearance of an ophicleide and valves instead of a slide. Verdi used this instrument sparingly in Falstaff; but its effect is always unmistakable. Its deep sound is as imposing as the appearance of Falstaff himself, with just a hint of grotesque connotations.
The lower register is also dominated by the bassoon parts. (Since he had included the cimbasso, Verdi did not need to add a double bassoon.) Verdi is more disposed to the melodic nature of the bassoon in Falstaff than he is in most of his other orchestral work. As a result, the first bassoon (Rufus Olivier) often assumes a role similar to that of the bass voice in a Renaissance madrigal. While there is nothing (well … perhaps little) madrigal-like about any of the vocal work, this may have been Verdi’s way of subtly acknowledging the music of Shakespeare’s day (without ever worrying about explicitly citing it).
There is also skillful use of the bass clarinet. However, this is much more sparing than I initially thought. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, the bass clarinet is only used in the first scene of the third act, where it adds a slightly comic edge to Falstaff recovering from his “in depth” encounter with the River Thames.
At the other extreme we have the piccolo (Stephanie McNab). Traditionally, the piccolo serves to reinforce the flutes by “kicking the action,” so to speak, up an octave. Thus, Ludwig van Beethoven tended to use it to highlight specific phrases. Verdi, on the other hand, endows the piccolo part with a much richer melodic lexicon, even allowing it to declare its own independence from the flute section. Dramatically, this seems to reinforce the individuality of the principal characters, not only Falstaff but also the self-reliance of the “merry wives.”
Yesterday’s experience thus left me with even more appreciation of this summa of Verdi’s musical skills. Needless to say, without the full scope of meticulous attention given to those skills by Music Director Nicola Luisotti, the depth of such appreciation would have been lost. However, when Luisotti’s talents mesh with those of Director Olivier Tambosi, the result is one of the most successful efforts to synthesize the best qualities of both drama and music in an opera house.