Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of what is often dubbed “the first opera…” Spoiler alert: it’s not.
Certain facts speak for themselves when it comes to the premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff at La Scala, Milan, on February 9, 1893.
Fit to bursting, the theater had become host to one of the social events of the year. The audience, “a veritable orgy of colors, reflections and spectacles” according to L’Italia del popolo, was packed with the nobility, all dressed in sparkling attire. Those members of the audience who weren’t famous, were probably rich: seats that normally cost 5 lire cost 150, and a seat in a box was as much as 250 lire. There had been queues in front of the house since 9:30 that morning.
The press reported that the theater made as much as 89,000 lire that night.
The new opera lived up to expectations. “Viva Verdi!” the audience yelled, as the 79-year-old composer took a bow—at the end of each act.
Two sections were encored during the performance, Verdi having approved of this in advance: the women’s quartet, “Quell’otre! Quel tino!” (above), and Falstaff’s delightful miniature aria “Quand’ero paggio” (below).
As many as 4,000 people were waiting down the road, at the Hotel Milan, to greet Verdi when he arrived back after the performance. He had to acknowledge the crowd from his balcony, three times, before they abated.
Why all the fuss? Well, to be fair, Falstaff is very good. But its place in Verdi’s life story makes it all the more worthy of celebration.
Falstaff was his 28th and final opera, but only his second comedy—his first having been Un giorno di regno, a full half-century earlier. And it was his third Shakespeare adaptation, and his second collaboration with the talented young polymath Arrigo Boito, the man who had persuaded Verdi out of retirement, a few years earlier, to write Otello. So it was a rare and hugely exciting event.
More broadly, Verdi was simply beloved, as the composer of so many earlier operatic triumphs. And he surely deserved one last popular success. Always a man who knew his public, Verdi chose to bow out by writing a brilliantly good-spirited composition with a warm, autumnal hue—which is, at the same time, a musical tour de force. “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” the characters sing at the end: everything in the world is in jest. And yet they sing it in classical music’s most rigorous, bookish form: it’s a fugue. One final little joke of Verdi’s.