Yesterday’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge was one of the most exciting musical events I’ve attended in years. All parts of this operatic performance were scintillating, but the most astounding aspect was the accomplishment of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras under Federico Cortese’s direction. The BYSO, established under the umbrella of the Boston University College of Fine Arts, has served to train young orchestra players in the greater Boston area since 1958.
Confession at the outset: most Italian opera fails to interest me much, and I recognize this as a critical failing, so let no one upbraid me for not being an expert. But Falstaff is a resplendent exception which I love without reservation. Falstaff is a masterpiece among masterpieces, and fascinating testimony to a great composer’s ability to compose better and better the older he gets. As one who had spent his life writing for the opera theater and mastering perfectly its every necessity, Verdi was able to finish writing his last and, in the opinion of many, greatest work when he was 80 years old. Apart from the very early and unsuccessful Giorno di regno (King for a day, 1840), Falstaff, premiered in 1893, is Verdi’s only comic opera. (I recall reading somewhere that the leader of the cello section at the premiere was a young man named Arturo Toscanini.) Falstaff precisely matches music to drama, and its libretto, by Arrigo Boito, himself a veteran operatic composer, has brought out the humor, the pathos, the humanity, and the extraordinary characterization that radiates from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor with amazing poetic accuracy; all of these catalyzed Verdi’s musical imagination to a degree that even the composer himself might not have predicted, considering that he had wanted to retire permanently from operatic composition after Otello in 1887 but finally agreed to write Falstaff after his wife and Boito nagged him into it.
The score of Falstaff is marked by such rapid tempo and textural lightness throughout that only those with excellent vocal technique and long experience should attempt to sing it. The demands on the voice are not those of endurance, as in Wagner, nor of vocal range and volume, as in grand opera or Rossini, but of effortless precision and clarity. The orchestra matches these demands with its own extremes of technical virtuosity and precise texture. Verdi’s orchestral writing in this opera is mostly gossamer-light, with never an unnecessary note, and only as many instruments as the music itself demands, whether in pianississimo textures or the loudest tutti, and much of it proceeding at dizzying speed, especially in Act II. There are no big high-C arias in Falstaff, nor indeed any set pieces longer than a short song, because the whole quicksilver dramatic development is matched by the musical setting at every instant, with dozens of abrupt changes of tempo and texture.
I mention all this because Sunday’s performance was extraordinary in every way. The singers are all young but seasoned operatic professionals. The orchestra, which Federico Cortese directed with total concentration, comprised two groups, the Sinfonietta and the Camerata, from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, the first playing Act I and the first scene of Act II, and the second the remainder of the opera. My amazement at the excellence of this ensemble never faltered. Their precise, unified, spirited, fearless, wonderfully musical playing would have done credit to any opera orchestra in the world, maybe even the Met or the Vienna State Opera. In all my years growing up in greater Boston I never heard a student orchestra play even half as well as this one. Nothing ever dragged or stumbled, and I frequently saw how attentive the players were to Cortese’s precise beat. Above all, the entire company, singers and orchestra alike, showed a perfect understanding of what was going on and what everything was supposed to sound like. I should have been prepared for this, because of what I was told about the same orchestra’s dazzling performance of Verdi’s Macbeth last year, which I didn’t hear.
Sanders Theatre has fine but sometimes complex acoustics and isn’t ideally suited to an operatic staging. This performance was semi-staged, with costumes and a few props, and it succeeded perfectly without scenery. Having the orchestra on stage meant that adjusting balances could be problematic, but I was able to hear almost everything, and the supertitles projected above the stage worked out very well except in simultaneous dialogue (this problem may never be fully solved anywhere). Hats off to the first-rate cast of singers: Louis Otey (Sir John Falstaff), Edward Parks (Ford), Caitlin Lynch (Alice Ford), Steve Sanders (Fenton), Anya Matanovi? (Nannetta), Maria Todaro (Meg Page), Melissa Parks (Mistress Quickly), Peter Tantsits (Dr. Caius), Neil Ferreira (Bardolfo), and Jeremy Milner (Pistola). These artists are busy all over the world, from the Met and City Center to Santa Fe and La Scala and Shanghai, and obviously enjoyed working with an orchestra of not-yet professionals in a strangely-shaped hall.
Here are only a few details about the orchestra, though I could mention many more. At the beginning of Act III, while the chilled and dripping Falstaff snarls in anger at the hostile world, there is a gloomy low-register melody in trombone octaves. The score calls for a bass trombone at the bottom of this, but its low notes clearly demand a contrabass instrument, of the hard-to-find Italian type called a cimbasso. I didn’t hear those notes and I don’t think they were even there, but in truth I didn’t miss them, and to have had a tuba play them might have been too ponderous. The horn section, five players sharing four parts, sounded rich and confident throughout, especially in widely-spaced textures (two octaves and a fifth apart at one point), and in several places where there is a musical pun, when “horns” signify cuckoldry (“e lo cornifico”). And I especially liked what Verdi does with the lonely piccolo in soft textures; none of the usual top-register shrieks for this ottavino, which was clearly and precisely heard at unexpected but telling moments. The part for a single harp, in the fairy music in III/2, was shared and sometimes doubled with a second harp in this performance, and the added volume was welcome. But the nigh-flawless playing of the strings was perhaps the most remarkable part of the orchestral performance; even in Allegro presto and agitato, the notes flying like trapezes over the entire range, they never fell behind by a microsecond, retaining their full expressiveness throughout.
Falling on hard times, Boston may have lost one of its good opera companies; but this Falstaff, by rejoinder, was wonderful reaffirmation of what can happen in opera here with a carefully assembled and expertly trained group of enthusiastic young people can do to keep opera alive. The Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras deserve our heartiest congratulations and thanks.