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By John Patrick Ford

Despite 50 years of 27 operas composed by Giuseppe Verdi, his last work had problems getting on the stage and then was ignored for years. “Falstaff” premiered in 1893 after three years of struggles among the collaborators. Critics claimed it lacked full-blooded melodies, so the opera faded from public interest after a gala premiere.

A young Arturo Toscanini championed its revival at La Scala supported by other conductors and big-name baritones seeking to interpret the comical character.

Verdi composed only two comic operas (“Un giorno di regno” was the first) and longed to write another light-hearted opera at age 80. His choice was another based on a Shakespeare play. He collaborated with the popular composer Arrigo Boito for the libretto and his publisher Ricordi.

“After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at least the right to laugh a little,” Verdi admitted to his librettist Boito. They chose the text from Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” in addition to material taken from “Henry IV.” The original name of the opera was “Big Belly,” then changed to “Falstaff.”

During his period of composing, Verdi was concerned at his age he might not be able to complete the opera and had moments of withdrawal. A friend said that secretly he was not able to hide his delight to be doing another opera despite his doubts.

The premier performance was attended by aristocrats, critics and leading arts figures from all over Europe. Verdi had an hour’s ovation when he stepped in front of the curtain. After touring Europe with several translations, “Falstaff” reached the Metropolitan Opera in 1895. After the initial excitement died down, opera goers began to complain there were no signature arias or big choruses. In a few years the opera was dropped from the repertory of major opera houses.

When Toscanini revived the work, he reported, “I believe it will take years before the general public understands this masterpiece.”

The SDO production is from Lyric Opera of Chicago with Daniele Callegari conducting and Oliver Tambosi the stage director. Roberto de Candia is cast as Sir John Falstaff, the tragic comedian that the merry wives of Windsor trick into being a fool despite his amorous advances.  Baritone de Candia has an illustrious career performing at La Scala, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg Festival.

The large cast also presents three SDO debuts and six artists returning to complete the folk in Windsor that make Falstaff look ridiculous during his escapades.

Verdi had a special interest in the Shakespeare plays as subjects for opera. Both “Otello” and “MacBeth” were heavy dramas with the usual murders so often encountered in the opera world. At the end of his career, he sought a lighter libretto and was considering “Romeo and Juliet” before undertaking “Falstaff” as a comic opera. No murders at last.

Since the character of Falstaff was associated with young Prince Hal (later Henry V) by Shakespeare, he is often confused with a real person. In fact, Sir John was an entirely fictional personality based on two historic knights that bore some of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s creation.

In the early drafts of Henry IV parts one and two, Shakespeare did use the actual name of one of the knights but had to be make a change when the family objected. The author then selected the name Falstaff from the old English spelling of a celebrated medieval knight. The two plays connect the young prince with the wild antics of the buffoon knight who boozes at the Wild Boar Tavern and chases women. That’s why audiences believe that Falstaff was an actual companion leading the young prince into debauchery.

“Falstaff” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7:00 p.m. Saturday February 18, Tuesday February 21, and Friday February 24; and 2:00 p.m. Sunday February 26. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit www.sdopera.com

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.