Old men still love, although we seldom succeed. That is the inevitable message of today’s Met HD broadcast of Verdi’s Falstaff. I reflected all the opera on this year’s affair now gone to Quebec, maybe to return next year? How can age impede the impulses of the young?
Today, three friends and I watched a magnificent performance of this great opera written by Verdi when he was nearly eighty-years old. By then he was famous and successful beyond measure, yet he still had time and energy to distill his genius into one last work of perfection. And today the MET produced this work to perfection.
Recall, as noted by Wikipedia, these facts about the fictional Falstaff:
Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. In the two Henry IV plays, he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, and is ultimately repudiated after Hal becomes king. Falstaff also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Though primarily a comic figure, Falstaff still embodies a kind of depth common to Shakespeare’s tricky comedy. In Act II, Scene III of Henry V, his death is described by the character “Hostess”, possibly the Mistress Quickly of Henry IV, who describes his body in terms that parody Plato’s description of the death of Socrates.
Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, focus on the Merry Wives of Windsor part. In today’s opera, Falstaff is fat and old, as are two of the merry wives. He is vain, boastful, and easily lead by the wily women into funny situations, including the famous hiding in the laundry basket and being dumped into the river Thames.
All the singers are in great form. As one intelligent review notes:
There’s more to Falstaff than Falstaff, of course. Stephanie Blythe in the role of Mistress Quickly matches Maestri’s star power watt for watt; Angela Meade as Alice and Lisette Oropesa as Nannetta make a strike force of female vengeance. This is an opera full of colluding ensembles, and James Levine, wheelchair-bound now but in fine musical form, manages them as adroitly as ever.
The best part of the music is the fast and furious passing of melodies of tantalizing brevity and power. This is an old man, Verdi, at the height of his power but now impatient to move on. This is no young man showing off for ages over a great tune; rather Verdi throws up one great tune after another and dwells on them for but a line or two before moving on to a greater tune.
Not all old men master originality, newness, and brevity. You can decide for yourself, on the evidence of this blog, whether I, as an old man, am brief or long-winded. Imagine how I will write at eighty, sixteen years hence.
On Thursday this week I went to dinner with three old mining consultants. We calculated that between us we had over two-hundred-year’s experience. We are still active, even though the oldest amongst us is now eighty. He still consults to one of those big mining and environmental consulting companies, telling them how to write succinct reports full of information. He still travels and entertains his fifty-year old girlfriend in his Vancouver penthouse.
When conversation lulled, I asked: “Who are the engineers now in their thirties and forties who will take over from us when we are gone. I mean those engineers of drive, new ideas, ability, judgement, and the promise of leadership.”
The eighty-year old snorted: “Jack, you flatter yourself and us that we are of drive, ideas, ability, and all the rest of it. We just lived long enough and worked hard enough, and were lucky enough to get the difficult projects.”
The seventy-year old came to my defence: “I just surveyed two-hundred young engineers in a big consulting company and told the old boss that a mere six of them had promise, and can be mentored to great things. The rest will spend their lives logging core, running repetitive computer codes, and writing lousy reports that must be rewritten or ignored.”
The sixty-nine year old opined: “Today the great engineers are not, as was the case in the past, working for consultants. Now they work for the mining companies. Witness Mike Davies and John Lupo.”
We all acknowledged that we knew of at least one great engineer, formerly of a reputable consulting company, who now works for a mining company. As the eighty-year old noted: “These days the mining companies pay so much more than consultants, that it is inevitable they go where the money, challenges, and rewards are. And that is good for mining, even though more expensive than hitherto.”
I acknowledged that the best young engineers in mining that I know are my clients, not my consulting subordinates. One is but three years out of his masters and yet he is insightful, demanding, smart, quick, and of incredible promise. We could not pay him what he gets with the oil sands company. He will, in my opinion, be a leader in the industry when I am but a memory.
And so the evening wore on and very early we paid the bill to return home to quiet beds. For we needed to rise early and do a hard day’s work the next day. Got to keep at it to keep up with those talented youngsters! And be awake to watch Saturday opera.