Verdi’s last opera Falstaff, written when he was almost 80, is opera’s greatest sport. It is unlike anything else by the composer or by anyone else, for that matter. Verdi had written all his previous with the expectation of pleasing his audiences while observing the highest artistic standards. But near the end of his life, rich, famous, and revered he decided to write one opera just for himself. Falstaff moves with the speed of a diving falcon. With one exception, it has none of the great set pieces that characterized all of Verdi’s previous works. It is this exception that is the subject of this article.
‘È sogno o realtà?’ occurs in un Act 2 scene 1. In a comedy that sparkles with wit, this monologue is darkly serious. It harkens back to the Verdi who wrote Rigoletto. Stylistically, it is in the same manner of ‘Pari siamo’ from that opera’s Act 1 scene 2. Here is the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing the aria. Hvorostovsky Pari siamo.
The differences between the two monologues, separated by more than 40 years, are that Rigoletto is a tragic opera while Falstaff is a broad comedy and that the older aria is sung by the title character. It’s the second baritone (Ford) who sings ‘È sogno’. If he’s good enough, he can steal the show from Falstaff. Such grand larceny happened at the Metropolitan Opera almost a century ago.
Ford is deadly serious at this juncture in the opera. He is convinced that his wife is about to make a cuckhold of him. This is no longer a comedy – at least for Ford. The only difference between the Verdi of 40 years earlier and the composer of Falstaff is that he does not allow a pause in the action such that the audience can applaud. Otherwise, the music is what you would expect from the composer of some of the greatest dramatic baritone parts in opera.
In 1925, the young American baritone, Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960), who was only in his second season at the Met and who had never sung a role bigger than Valentin in Faust with the company was Ford opposite the Falstaff of Antonio Scotti (1866-1936). Tibbett was so good that the audience demanded he take a solo bow before they would allow the show to continue. Scotti was one of the Met’s greatest baritones. He sang with the company from 1899 to 1933. During that span he appeared in 1213 performances, the most by a leading singer of any vocal type in Met history. He was also a very generous colleague. He allowed Tibbett to sing 21 more performances as Ford with him (Scotti) in the title role. When Leonard Warren came along, Tibbett had moved up to the title role. He refused to appear with Warren saying: “I’m not going to allow him to do to me what I did to Scotti.”
Below is a photo with the two baritones shaking hands after Scotti’s farewell performance at the Met. Below the photo is an excerpt from Olin Downes review of Falstaff detailing Tibbett’s triumph as Ford. As you can see they both seem very friendly. The cigarette in Scotti mouth may explain why his retirement was brief. He died three years later.
Review from The New York Times, 1/3/1925:
AMERICAN BARITONE STIRS OPERA HOUSE
Unprecedented Scene When Lawrence Tibbett Fails to Realize He’s Made a Hit.Gets Roars of Applause
“Falstaff” Audience Demands His Appearance After His Bow With Scotti, Singing Title Role.
By Olin Downes.
The revival of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” last night in the Metropolitan Opera House, occasioned considerable excitement and was quite without precedent in the annals of the organization. The evening also produced the most brilliant performance that has been given in the opera house this season.
The Falstaff was Antonio Scotti, whose art requires no description or laurels today. The Ford was the young American Lawrence Tibbett, who last season became a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company, and who has since advanced very rapidly as a singer and dramatic interpreter. At the end of the second act comes the scene between Ford and Falstaff, in which Ford becomes convinced that his spouse is actually plotting infidelity, and alone on stage, intones his monologue of suspicion and jealousy, “E sogno.”
This scene Mr. Tibbett delivered with a quality of vocalism and interpretation which constituted one of the highest points, and one of the strongest individual performances of the evening. As the curtain fell the house burst into prolonged applause. In response to the applause, which kept up and increased in volume for many minutes, various of the principals appeared. Then Mr. Tibbett and Mr. Scotti appeared together and received ovations.
Audience Demands Tibbett Alone.
At last it was evident that the audience wished Mr. Tibbett and none other for its attentions. But this singer did not come before the curtain alone.
The commotion in the theatre increased. Some began to stamp, whistle and catcall. Cries of “Tibbett” came from various parts of the house. There was no response. For a while no one appeared before the curtain; the lights were lowered and Mr. Serafin, the conductor, raised his baton for the next scene to begin.
He found it impossible to proceed. Pandemonium grew. Even the elect in the boxes began to take more than a polite interest in the proceedings. The audience, justly or unjustly, had gained the impression that Mr. Tibbett was not allowed to come before them and receive their appreciation and had determined that the performance should go further until he had done so.
It was Mr. Serafin who ended the business. He sent one of the orchestra players backstage to request that Mr. Tibbett be allowed to appear. The curtains parted, the young singer stepped to the front of the stage, bowed low and repeatedly to the excited assembly, and the performance proceeded. An American audience had decided that one of its own nationality should be properly recognized for his talent, and that ended the incident.
The text of the monologue is below followed by an English translation. Boito’s archaic Italian is hard to translate. I’ve done the best I can to make some, but not all, of the obscure words recognizable in English.
I’ll, start with Tibbett’s famous rendition. It’s very good and one can easily understand why the Met’s audience was so impressed. Tibbett È sogno
Next Leonard Warren’s (1911-60) interpretation of the monologue. It’s also very god. One can also understand why Tibbett didn’t want to appear with him. Warren never did sing Ford at the Met. He did sing Falstaff with the company. Warren È sogno
Robert Merrill (1917-2004) had the perfect voice for Ford, but while he recorded the role, he never sang it onstage. His Ford from the complete recording of the opera under Georg Solti’s direction is wonderful. Merrill È sogno
George London (1920-85) was Scarpia in Tosca at the first performance I ever heard at the old Met. He was far and away the best performer of the evening. He was outstanding at everything he did – a true artist. I’m pretty sure he never sang Ford, but his recording of the aria is among the best extant. His career was cut short by vocal cord paralysis and his life by cardiovascular disease. London È sogno
Renato Capecchi ((1923-98) was an Italian baritone and opera director. He sang leading roles at the Met from 1951 to 1954. He then left the company until 1975 whereupon he sang frequently until 1994. During this second phase of his New York career he specialized in smaller roles alongside the leading roles in comic operas like Don Pasquale and The Barber. All told, he appeared 305 times at the Met. His rendition of the monologue is very effective. The Italian audience tries to applaud, but the flow of the music stiffles their efforts. Capecchi È sogno
Leo Nucci (b 1942) started out as a chorister at La Scala. He moved up to leading baritone roles a few years later. He has sung at every major house in the world. He was singing leading Verdi roles with major companies well into his 70s. Nucci È sogno
Sir Simon Keenlyside (b 1959) is a great baritone with an exceptional stage presence. This excerpt is taken from a 2018 run of the opera at the Royal Opera House in which Keenlyside was Ford opposite Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff. By comparison to some other Fords presented here, his performance is on the mild side. Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra is a bit overpowering. Keenlyside È sogno
Ludovic Tézier (b 1968) has sung at many of the world’s leading houses. He has appeared 34 times at the Met, but nothing since 2011. He was Marcello in an HD telecast of La Bohème and and Enrico in an HD Lucia. Both times I thought him ready for some of the big Verdi roles which he has performed in Europe. It appears that his Met days are over. His singing here is quite good, though a darker tone would have helped. Tézier È sogno
Quinn Kelsey (b 1978) is an American baritone who has recently assumed the big Verdi roles. I heard him as Rigoletto in Santa Fe. He was fully up to the great challenge of Verdi’s buffone. His singing of the great monologue is on the mark. Kelsey È sogno
È sogno o realtà?… Due rami enormi
Crescon sulla mia testa.
E’ un sogno? Mastro Ford!
Mastro Ford! Dormi?
Svegliati! Su! Ti desta!
Tua moglie sgarra
e mette in mal assetto
L’onore tuo, la casa ed il tuo letto!
L’ora é fissata, tramato l’inganno;
Sei gabbato e truffato!…
E poi diranno
Che un marito geloso é un insensato!
Già dietro a me nomi d’infame conio
mormora lo scherno.
O matrimonio, inferno!
Nella lor moglie abbian fede i babbei!
La mia birra a un Tedesco,
Tutto il mio desco
A un Olandese lurco,
La mia bottiglia di acquavite
a un Turco,
Non mia moglie a se stessa.
O laida sorte!
Quella brutta parola in cor mi torna:
Le corna! Bue! Capron! le fusa torte!
Ah! le corna! le corna!
Ma non mi sfuggirai! no! sozzo, reo,
Prima li accoppio
E poi lo colgo. Io scoppio!
Laudata sempre sia
Nel fondo del mio cor la gelosia.
Is it dream or reality? … Two huge branches
Are spouting on my head.
Is it a dream? Master Ford!
Master Ford! Are you asleep?
Wake up! On! It awakens you!
Your wife sins
and puts up badly
Your honor, your home and your bed!
The hour is fixed, the deception is plotted;
You’re fooled and cheated! …
And then they will say
That a jealous husband is a fool!
Already behind me names of infamous coinage
the murmurs of mockery.
O marriage, hell!
The suckers have faith in their wives!
I would trust
My beer to a German,
All my table
To a dirty Dutchman,
My bottle of brandy
to a Turk,
Not my wife to herself.
Or bad luck!
That ugly word in my heart comes back to me:
The horns! Ox! Capron! purred cakes!
Ah! the horns! the horns!
But you will not escape me! no! dirty, guilty,
First I’ll match them
And then I take it. I burst!
I will avenge the affront!
Praised always be
In the depths of my heart, jealousy.