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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

20. Falstaff at Covent Garden (1894)

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1As with Otello a few years before, Verdi’s last operatic achievement drew the attention of the London press long before it reached London. Already in January 1893, correspondents from some of the most prominent English journals were reporting from Milan, where the premiere of Falstaff was in preparation. They enriched their accounts by focusing on the figure of the octogenarian composer and the circumstances leading to this last composition. A first glance at the general quality of these articles confirmswhatwe have already observed with regard to Otello and suggests the dramatic extent to which the general attitude of the English critics towards Verdi had changed since he first established himself as a young composer of international prominence. Compare the deferential attitude generally exhibited in 1893 to the scornful description of Verdi composing at the piano that appeared in the columns of The Musical World on 14 May 1853. A good example of later tendency is offered by an article that appeared in the Daily Graphic and was reproduced in The Musical Standard on 21 January; in it, a journalist reported on a visit paid to Verdi together with the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci. The old composer was again portrayed as a country gentleman and a landed proprietor who enjoyed gardening and considered music composition a leisure activity. He was no longer a young composer to be treated with contempt, scornfully described while banging on the piano keyboard and other drum instruments. Rather, he was a tall, gaunt figure, whose long grey hair and wrinkled forehead commanded respect.

2Upon attending the Milan premiere of Falstaff some of the critics raised once more the well-known question of the alleged influence exerted by Wagner and his method. For instance, on 18 February the correspondent of The Musical Standard, having bestowed upon the composer his appreciative remarks on the spirited music he was still able to write, maintained that the compositional development undertaken by the Italian composer showed that he was in sympathy with Wagner’s ideas on music-drama.

  • 1 “Verdi,” The Musical Standard, February 18, 1893, p. 129.

His artistic conscience has naturally accepted, in part, the reforms of the Bayreuth master, and the manner in which the author of Il Trovatore has so assimilated, without actually copying, the newer form of music-drama, as shown by his Otello and Falstaff, places him in the rank of modern composers, in which, had his fame entirely relied on his earlier works, he would have been but a shadow and had lost the name he bears.1

  • 2 “Verdi’s Falstaff,The Athenaeum, February 18, 1893, p. 227.

3It was to Verdi’s credit, the correspondent concluded, that he had not stood still. A similar appreciative attitude can be found in the review that made its appearance in the columns of The Athenaeum on the same day, where it was held that the steady march of Verdi’s genius was the work of a man “who has never swerved from the search after the highest ideal.”2 In this regard, the critic did not share with his colleague from The Musical Standard the opinion according to which, in modifying his compositional method, Verdi confessed his conversion to the Wagnerian gospel. Falstaff also represented an unprecedented case when compared to Verdi’s own works, so remarkable was the gap between this last accomplishment and the previous ones. Boito was congratulated upon the admirably conceived libretto, but it was Verdi’s genius that had to be credited for the success of the opera. The irresistible charm of his music came of absolute, humorous simplicity, and was also possibly due to the composer not having had recourse to representative themes.

  • 3 “Verdi’s Falstaff,The Times, February 10, 1893, p. 5.
  • 4 Ibid. “Rarely has the singer of a part been better fitted for it than is M. Maurel for that of Fals (...)

4The Times granted full coverage to the event, which was chronicled in its columns on 10 February, a more in-depths analysis of the music making its appearance three days later. However, already on 10 February the critic pronounced Falstaff a work “in all respects worthy to rank with the great masterpiece of Verdi’s genius, Otello, the opera in which the composer proved his power of adaptation to dramatic methods entirely at variance with those he had formerly upheld.”3 The music was said to be original in the highest degree and to show a distinctive character, especially on account of the strong comic element. The work did not present any traditional combinations of recitatives and arias, in the ordinary sense of set pieces, a circumstance granting the opera complete dramatic unity. The critic bestowed words of appreciation upon the interpreters and Victor Maurel was pronounced a wonderful Falstaff both vocally and dramatically.4

5On 11 February, a short notice was also published which provided the reader with a sense of the boundless enthusiasm ignited by Falstaff among the critics.

  • 5 “Verdi’s Falstaff,” The Times, February 11, 1893, p. 5.

The opinion of the musical authorities in general on last night’s performance seems united in regarding Falstaff as the most masterly of Verdi’s works, and as remarkable, not only for its sustained ensemble, but for the youthfulness and freshness of its inspiration. Amongst the critical representatives of the foreign Press now here, the enthusiasm approaches extravagance, and there is no appreciable difference of opinion as to the supreme quality of the art of the work.5

6Finally, on 13 February The Times published a more detailed analysis of the opera, where the initial appreciative opinion was confirmed. Verdi was the greatest of modern Italian composers and the most striking characteristic of the opera was the brightness and vis comica that permeated it from beginning to end. Granted the radical differences between the two composers, Verdi’s Falstaff was compared with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on account of its freshness and comic cheerfulness, two features which the correspondent insisted upon again at the conclusion of his account. The names of Beethoven and Mendelssohn were also mentioned in order to draw a parallel between the cherished classics and the sparkling inventiveness exhibited by the old Italian composer.

  • 6 See also James A. Hepokoski, Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) (...)
  • 7 “Verdi’s Falstaff in Vienna,” The Times, May 23, 1893, p. 3.
  • 8 “Verdi’s Falstaff at Berlin,” The Times, June 2, 1893, p. 5.

7In the following months The Times continued to call attention to the opera and reported on its successful reception in Vienna, where it was given twice on 21 and 22 May, and in Berlin, where it had four performances starting in June.6 The La Scala company was conducted by Edoardo Mascheroni with the original cast, Ramon Blanchart substituting for Victor Maurel in Berlin where, it was reported, he had refused to perform. Two aspects seem to have struck the correspondent regarding the performance in Vienna: the exceedingly high price of the seats and the twofold response of the audience. The public was divided into two classes: those who showed enthusiasm and those who exhibited a “demonstrative coolness,” probably less on account of the music than of the high price paid in order to gain admission.7 At Berlin the public seemed to be taken aback by the high degree of novelty presented by the new opera, which probably needed to be attended more than once before it could be fully understood and appreciated.8

8On 1 March, Joseph Bennett contributed a long report to The Musical Times, whose title read “Falstaff and the Land of Song.” As he clarified at the end of his extensive text, it had not been his intention to provide the reader with a detailed analysis of Verdi’s last accomplishment, but rather to narrate the circumstances leading to its premiere. In fact, upon arriving at Milan after a lengthy journey, the journalist was informed that the performance had to be postponed; this delay offered him the opportunity to attend Alberto Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo, Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. But the prolonged wait was not an entirely unfortunate circumstance for this had granted him the opportunity to observe the busy life of Milan, and to experience and report on the sense of anticipation so widespread among the people. Everybody seemed to be looking forward to this event, regardless of their social or professional condition.

9Finally, Falstaff was performed and Bennett chronicled the event in a way strongly suggestive of the high expectations it had raised among both the specialists and the countless enthusiasts who crowded the streets and thronged the theatre. A detailed analysis of the music of Falstaff made its appearance in the columns of The Musical Times on 1 April and 1 May, enriched with countless musical examples taken from the score and included in the article in order to facilitate the reader’s comprehension. The analysis involved an extensive account of all the melodic and harmonic devices chosen by the composer to set to music the different comic situations, and was presented along with a description of the manner in which the story unfolds before the eye of the reader-spectator. Having fulfilled this task only in part, after the description of the first act the critic made a first observation of more general import and hinted at the manner in which Verdi had renounced all the old compositional set forms.

  • 9 “The Music of Falstaff,” The Musical Times, April 1, 1893, p. 203.

I have quoted largely from the first part of the opening act in order that some idea as to the character of the music might as soon as possible be obtained, and readers will now understand that, while not employing set musical forms (which no one expected he would do), the composer deals with each sentiment or situation as it arises, unfettered by systems, and that his style and method, though retaining Verdian characteristics, lean towards the clearness and simplicity of older masters in comic opera.9

10The music, which occasionally reminded the critic of the melodiousness typical of Mozart, included no leitmotivs and was always varying depending on the comic situation. It was a modified Verdi, as Bennett maintained, for Verdi’s style was tempered, chastened, lightened, but unmistakably recognizable. Upon concluding his analysis the critic pronounced Falstaff a dramatic masterpiece and a wonderful proof of artistic vitality in a man of eighty.

  • 10 The Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884 in London’s East Side by Samuel Barnett after Arnold Toynbee, (...)
  • 11 Edward Woodall Naylor was the author of Shakespeare and Music (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1896), an (...)

11One further aspect that emerged on the occasion of the production of Falstaff in Milan is the interest English music scholars now took in Verdi, even though no definitive plan had been made to have it performed in London. On 15 April, The Musical Standard reported on a lecture that would soon be given at Toynbee Hall10 by Edward Woodall Naylor11 on “The Music of the Future.” Naylor, as the reporter was in a position to anticipate, would argue that the most distinctive aspect of Wagner was the leitmotiv, without which there could be no true Wagnerism, and that Verdi, having not adopted it, could not be said to be a follower or even an imitator of the German composer.

  • 12 Mackenzie’s lectures were soon translated and published in Italy: A. C. McKenzie, Tre letture sopra (...)
  • 13 The Musical Times, June 1, 1893, p. 330.

12Later on in June and July the columns of The Musical Times granted ample space to another series of lectures focussing on Verdi’s last work, this time the Scottish composer, conductor and music teacher Alexander Campbell Mackenzie being the lecturer. Mackenzie, who was Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, was said to be the most qualified expert to deal with Verdi’s music, and his lectures on Falstaff at the Royal Institution were meant to raise the curiosity of those who had not yet seen it on the boards.12 What is more, the musical illustrations were provided by a “number of distinguished artists, including Medora Henson, Herbert Thorndike, Watkin Mills, and David Bispham.”13 Among the many points raised by the scholar, three assume special relevance in our perspective. The first concern was about Verdi having not adopted the leitmotiv system; the second involved the manner in which the composer had pursued and happily achieved a high degree of dramatic consistency by way of a “wisely-adopted system of compression and concentration;” the third regarded the melodic charm that prevails over the entire opera. Even if, in the critic’s eyes, these three aspects demonstrated how pointless the continuously repeated efforts had been to force the Wagnerian system upon almost every composer in Europe, the question concerning the use of leitmotiv shows us the extent to which the Wagnerian model impinged on the reception of any new opera.

  • 14 “The Italian School and the Wagnerian System,”The Musical Standard, June 3, 1893, p. 425.

13The article on Mackenzie’s lectures prompted the immediate response of the critic of The Musical Standard, who expressed some critical remarks. In his “The Italian School and the Wagnerian System,” which made its appearance on 3 June 1893, the critic argued that melodic invention could not be considered in itself a criterion sufficient to make a clear distinction between German and Italian music; in fact, the appreciation of melodic beauty was too strongly influenced by subjective factors such as personal taste and individual orientation. Moreover, the ideas that lay at the foundation of the so-called “Wagnerian System” could be as true in any other country, since they were based on the assumption that dramatic consistency should not be sacrificed on the altar of symmetrical melodic phrases and oversimplified orchestral accompaniments. Even though it was true that Verdi had not changed his typically Italian style, the same could not be said of younger Italian composers such as Pietro Mascagni and Ruggiero Leoncavallo, whose Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, the critic maintained, were “pre-eminently examples of the grafting of the depraved ideas of the Bayreuth composer on the genius of the Italian school.”14 This, the critic concluded, demonstrated how strongly the Wagnerian system had exerted its influence over the younger generation.

  • 15 “Verdi’s Falstaff in Paris,”The Times, April 19, 1894, p. 12.
  • 16 See also Giuseppe Verdi, Arrigo Boito, The Verdi-Boito Correspondence (Chicago: University of Chica (...)
  • 17 The Times, May 21, 1894, p. 7.
  • 18 The cast included the bass Vittorio Arimondi (1861–1928) as Pistol, a role he had created in Milan (...)

14Finally, Falstaff was put on stage at Covent Garden on 20 May 1894, one month after the Paris premiere, which had taken place on 18 April at the Opéra-Comique in the presence of the composer.15 On the occasion of the Paris premiere, a French translation of the original libretto had been prepared by Boito himself with the aid of Paul Solanges, and a new French cast was organised around the figure of Victor Maurel; this included Marie Delna as Mrs. Quickly and Edmond Clément as Fenton.16 The reception of Falstaff in Paris was enthusiastic and offered a good preparation for its forthcoming production in London; in fact, as the critic of The Times put it, when it was given in London the English cognoscenti immediately “endorsed fully and heartily the verdict of all competent Continental critics concerning Verdi’s Falstaff, and this masterpiece of comic music was most enthusiastically received.”17 However, the critic suggested that Verdi’s new opera represented a challenge, at least in so far as the fashionable audience was concerned. In fact, since the opera contained no dull moments, it allowed no opportunities for social intercourse and agreeable conversation during the performance. Both Boito’s libretto and Verdi’s music involved a new dramatic style, which was not as easy to grasp at first hearing as the old conventional Italian operas. Arturo Pessina’s Falstaff was said to be more genial and more Shakespearian than that presented by Victor Maurel. Emma Zilli’s impersonation of Mrs Ford was pronounced “more merriment and sparkling humour than at first,” despite a persistent tremolo in the voice, Olga Olghina was barely adequate to the role of Anne Page, while Giulia Ravogli was admirable in her Mrs Quickly. In general, the cast was pronounced good and the performance left nothing to be desired, even though the conductor, Luigi Mancinelli, chose very different tempi from those taken in Milan.18

  • 19 The Athenaeum, May 26, 1894, p. 686.

15A few days later, the critic of The Athenaeum commented on the successful performance of Falstaff at Covent Garden and hinted at the most striking characteristic of the entire opera: the endless display of youthful spirit and comic vivacity, which he considered unprecedented, except for Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. But even though the two composers shared some similarities in the humorous treatment of the comic subject, the differences were not small and concerned the manner in which either composer treated the thematic material. While Wagner made use of the motives in a largely consistent way, Verdi exhibited an unbounded melodic inventiveness, and inserted new themes all the time.19 Sooner or later, it was impossible not to mention Wagner’s compositional technique.

  • 20 “Verdi’s Falstaff,” The Musical Standard, May 26, 1894, p. 431.

16A much more critical opinion was expressed by The Musical Standard, whose columnist drew attention to the many shortcomings still present in Verdi’s music, especially when compared to Wagner’s more consistent compositional system. To start with, a first doubt was raised with regard to the extent to which music as such could be said to be comic at all. Even though the question did not involve Verdi’s music alone, the critic wondered whether, given the subject of Falstaff, the music could really illustrate and enhance its vis comica. While the librettist had successfully understood the characteristics of the original play, the same could not be said of the composer. In fact, the critic suggested, the composer should have reflected in the orchestra the emotional expressions of the characters, instead of keeping it busy with an endless motivic bustle.20 The critic appeared to be a clear Wagnerite, and expressed his preference for a compositional method that would grant a stronger connection between music and drama. The complete lack of leitmotivs in Verdi represented a major flaw.

  • 21 Ibid.

Then the bewildering succession of themes, some poor, some much too good to die a sudden death, without any development of them as leit-motiven, gives a want of continuity to the opera, and also a want of definite characterization to the dramatis-personae; so that though the work may charm one at times the effect on the whole is detached and the work arouses not one’s interest continuously.21

17The critic argued that it would have been much better, had the composer adopted Wagner’s method in toto and used his themes as leitmotivs.

  • 22 Ibid.

Ready-made melodies, however beautiful (and some in Falstaff are indeed enchanting), will not give that continuity without which such a work as Falstaff is apt to weary one, unless they are developed and used in illustration of something besides a passing suggestion in the lines of the libretto. And, without this development of themes, how is a work which shall have solid musical interest to be written? The never-ending procession of new themes may be very great proof of the fecundity of a composer’s invention, but, when they are only given a passing meaning, they begin to tire the ear and to impart a patchy effect to that which should be a harmonious whole.22

18However, and notwithstanding some of the usual shortcomings involving the noisy treatment of the orchestra, the score revealed much ingenuity. Although the critic did not share the opinion of those commentators who claimed Falstaff to be a musical masterpiece, he could not deny that Verdi had done wonders, especially when one considered his age.

19Rather more appreciative was the critic of The Saturday Review, whose writing abounded with expressions of praise and commendation. Besides the “Beethovenian” flavour of the first scene, Verdi had proved that it was possible to blend the old and the new, and the results he had achieved were simply marvellous.

  • 23 Falstaff at Covent Garden,” The Saturday Review, May 26, 1894, pp. 552–53.

Here they are in an extraordinary combination of rhythms, there in a most intricate part-writing; here in ravishing freshness of melodic invention, there in the boldness of orchestral figures, and all this without any apparent effort, simply logically, and without interfering for a moment with the continuity of the symphonic wave.23

20The critic also congratulated the librettist upon the wonderful libretto. Quite a similar appreciative attitude was expressed by the critic of The Monthly Musical Record on 1 June. Having defined Verdi’s Falstaff a masterpiece, he went as far as to mention Mozart, Rossini, Wagner and even Johann Sebastian Bach among the models that the octogenarian had equalled, if not surpassed. This he had achieved by blending together the best methods from the present and the past.

21It is possible to observe two aspects emerging from the articles taken into consideration thus far. The first regards the respectful manner in which Verdi was now treated by the English critics, an attitude that ranges from the mildly deferential to the sincerely affectionate. The second regards his compositional style and the extent to which it was conceptualised in reference to Wagner’s model. Whether Verdi was considered an imitator of Wagner or not, the compositional technique of the second was constantly hinted at as a benchmark against which the music of the first should be examined. In this regard a prominent position was held by the so-called leitmotiv technique, which, according to some, was the clear indicator of any composer’s affiliation to the Wagnerian faith; the fact that Verdi did not make use of such a technique was a clear sign of his distinctiveness and autonomy. On the other hand, the declamatory style now so prevalent in Verdi’s vocal writing suggested the extent to which the Wagnerian notion of dramatic consistency did inform his compositional approach in a larger sense. All that said, no two critics really shared the same opinion in this regard, especially since no two critics shared the same opinion whether Wagner’s model was a good thing.

  • 24 The Musical Standard, May 19, 1894, p. 419.

22In general, the Italian opera season at Covent Garden that year was pronounced by the critic of The Times a successful one, and the first performance of Verdi’s Falstaff in London was accompanied by other novelties. The opening work was Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, given on 19 May, which the critic of The Musical Standard ascribed to that modern Italian school of which Leoncavallo and Mascagni could be considered the brightest stars.24 Although the representatives of the so-called Young Italian School could not compare with the old master, a new tendency was manifest in their work; under the influence of Wagner they were now bringing together two different notions, that of opera on one side, and that of music-drama on the other, and their achievement demonstrated that some sort of reconciliation between them was finally possible.

  • 25 “The Opera Season,” The Times, August 2, 1894, p. 3.

23The other novelties put forth during that season were Jules Massenet’s Werther and La Navarraise (which, the critic of The Times held, represented the two opposite sides of the same composer’s talent), Frederic Cowen’s Signa and Alfred Bruneau’s L’attaque du moulin.25 As a consequence of the extremely successful reception of the novelties presented by Augustus Harris at Covent Garden, the stock operas seemed to come off quite badly.


1 “Verdi,” The Musical Standard, February 18, 1893, p. 129.

2 “Verdi’s Falstaff,The Athenaeum, February 18, 1893, p. 227.

3 “Verdi’s Falstaff,The Times, February 10, 1893, p. 5.

4 Ibid. “Rarely has the singer of a part been better fitted for it than is M. Maurel for that of Falstaff, and a welcome freedom from exaggeration characterises both his singing and the style of his make-up, which is an important point and is elaborately contrived to give the necessary effect of enormous girth without overweighting the singer. M. Maurel’s delivery of the solo beginning ‘L’onore! Ladri’ could hardly have been improved, and he received an enthusiastic encore for the charming little passage in the second act beginning ‘Quando ero paggio del duca di Norfolk.’” Available at

5 “Verdi’s Falstaff,” The Times, February 11, 1893, p. 5.

6 See also James A. Hepokoski, Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 56.

7 “Verdi’s Falstaff in Vienna,” The Times, May 23, 1893, p. 3.

8 “Verdi’s Falstaff at Berlin,” The Times, June 2, 1893, p. 5.

9 “The Music of Falstaff,” The Musical Times, April 1, 1893, p. 203.

10 The Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884 in London’s East Side by Samuel Barnett after Arnold Toynbee, the British economic historian. Asa Briggs and Anne Macartney, Toynbee Hall, The First Hundred Years (London: Routledge, 1984).

11 Edward Woodall Naylor was the author of Shakespeare and Music (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1896), an essay dealing with the music and the music instrument involved in Shakespeare’s works.

12 Mackenzie’s lectures were soon translated and published in Italy: A. C. McKenzie, Tre letture sopra il Falstaff di Giuseppe Verdi, fatte alla Royal Institution of Great Britain – Traduzione del Maestro P. Mazzoni (Milan: G. Ricordi and C. Tipografia Edit., 1893)

13 The Musical Times, June 1, 1893, p. 330.

14 “The Italian School and the Wagnerian System,”The Musical Standard, June 3, 1893, p. 425.

15 “Verdi’s Falstaff in Paris,”The Times, April 19, 1894, p. 12.

16 See also Giuseppe Verdi, Arrigo Boito, The Verdi-Boito Correspondence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 218.

17 The Times, May 21, 1894, p. 7.

18 The cast included the bass Vittorio Arimondi (1861–1928) as Pistol, a role he had created in Milan in 1893. Thanks to his ponderous bass voice Arimondi enjoyed an international career; among his most celebrated roles there is Jacopo Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Available at

19 The Athenaeum, May 26, 1894, p. 686.

20 “Verdi’s Falstaff,” The Musical Standard, May 26, 1894, p. 431.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Falstaff at Covent Garden,” The Saturday Review, May 26, 1894, pp. 552–53.

24 The Musical Standard, May 19, 1894, p. 419.

25 “The Opera Season,” The Times, August 2, 1894, p. 3.


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