Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Verdi and Boito’s wilting lyric tenor Fenton is a transformation of the eponymous character from Merry Wives of Windsor, who’s your typical Elizabethan hero: handsome, dashing in his tights and poofy white shirt and rapier, cute Elizabethan beard-—and a prominent wart above his left eye! In the play, his girlfriend Anne Page’s dad, Mr. Page, discusses Fenton with the Host of the Garter Inn:
What say you to young Master Fenton? he capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May: he will carry't, he will carry't; 'tis in his buttons; he will carry't.

Not by my consent, I promise you. The gentleman is of no having: he kept company with the wild prince and Poins; he is of too high a region; he knows too much. No, he shall not knit a knot in his fortunes with the finger of my substance: if he take her, let him take her simply; the wealth I have waits on my consent, and my consent goes not that way.
The wild prince is Hal/Henry V; Poins is one of the drunken thieves who hangs out with him and Falstaff. As a good middle-class dad, Mr. Page is very responsibly trying to keep his daughter away from such young rakes.

Verdi and Boito remove any reference to Fenton keeping unwholesome company, and expand upon the attractive, poetic nature Shakespeare gives this lovestruck young swain. Alone among the characters of Merry Wives, Fenton speaks almost exclusively in blank verse:
I see I cannot get thy father's love;
Therefore no more turn me to him, sweet Nan.

Alas, how then?

Why, thou must be thyself.
He doth object I am too great of birth--,
And that, my state being gall'd with my expense,
I seek to heal it only by his wealth:
Besides these, other bars he lays before me,
My riots past, my wild societies;
And tells me 'tis a thing impossible
I should love thee but as a property.

May be he tells you true.

No, heaven so speed me in my time to come!
Albeit I will confess thy father's wealth
Was the first motive that I woo'd thee, Anne:
Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value
Than stamps in gold or sums in sealed bags;
And 'tis the very riches of thyself
That now I aim at.

Marcus Shelton as Fenton wooed Ani Maldjian's Nannetta in Seattle Opera's 2007 Young Artists Program Falstaff.

In the opera, Verdi and Boito invent a little routine for Fenton and Nannetta, a call-and-response “our song” they sing three times, as a code to declare their love to each other; and they also invent a marvelous scene for Fenton, wandering around in the woods in the middle of the night, improvising a metaphysical love poem.

For their call-and-response song ritual, Fenton and Nannetta use an old Italian saying, a line from Boccaccio’s Decameron (a bawdy collection of medieval Italian stories along the lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Story 7 of Day 2 of the Decameron ends: “So the girl, who had slept with eight men a good ten thousand times, lay down beside him as a virgin, and got him to believe it. She went on to live a long and happy life as his queen. Whence the saying:
Bocca baciata non perde ventura;
Anzi rinnova, come fa la luna.

Like most idioms, this saying is almost untranslatable; it vaguely means that virginity and sexual attractiveness wane and then wax like the moon. Blagoj Nacoski, who plays Fenton at Seattle Opera, conjectures that perhaps Fenton gave Nannetta a copy of the Decameron, that they first kissed when reading this particular line, and that they keep singing this passage because neither can wait to take it past kissing to the next level. But, as both of them are about 15 years old, their breathless innocence is part of their charm.

Illustration by Philip W. HermansenThe opening of the opera’s final scene, in which Fenton improvises a sonnet while alone in the woods, is a brilliant and entirely Shakespearean addition to the opera. (I’ve always thought Verdi and Boito stole the idea for this scene from Orlando in As You Like It, running around the Forest of Arden etching poems in honor of his ladylove Rosalind into the bark of the trees.) Fenton’s poem consists of three rhyming quatrains, the final rhyming couplet interrupted by the quote from the Decameron:

Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola
Pe' silenzi notturni e va lontano
E alfin ritrova un altro labbro umano
Che gli risponde colla sua parola.
Allor la notte che non è più sola
Vibra di gioia in un accordo arcano
E innamorando l’aer antelucano
Come altra voce al suo fonte rivola.
Quivi ripiglia suon, ma la sua cura
Tende sempre ad unir chi lo disuna.
Così baciai la disiata bocca!
“Bocca baciata non perde ventura.”

“Anzi rinnova come fa la luna.”

Ma il canto muor nel bacio che lo tocca.

No signore!

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. So here’s, not a translation, but a poem (in rhyming couplets of tetrameter because that’s the only way to rhyme on a supertitles screen!) inspired by Fenton’s little sonnet:
From two parched lips a song takes flight
hoping to drink deep in delight.
Deep in the woods the yearning song
finds thirsty lips who sing along.
Two melodies then dance and play;
their chords are codes which secrets say.
In lovesick air as dawn comes on
the singers look their loves upon.
When thirsty eyes drink lovers’ sight,
four separate lips at last unite.
Thus lips’ thirst is quenched with a kiss.
“Lips once kissed lose not their allure.”

“Like the new moon they are made pure.”

But song falls silent when lips drink this.

Oh, no, you don’t!

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