An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
So begins the second stanza of Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium, an old man's journey as a dying animal into twilight years -- and if he's lucky, immortality through fortune, fame or family -- latent preoccupations that are routinely tethered by good health and under-40s vitality, which is why it's so incongruous that young Venetian opera director Damiano Michieletto glorifies such a forgotten census slice through his latest production, a new Falstaff for the Salzburger Festspiele.
Michieletto -- who just deflected the leaflet-thrown vitriol of La Scala's cranky loggionisti at the premiere of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera -- purges Anglophilia from The Merry Wives of Windsor and sets Falstaff inside the eclectic neo-gothic chambers of Milan's Casa di riposo per musicisti Giuseppe Verdi, a rest home for retired opera singers and musicians since 1902, conceptually established by Verdi six years prior.
Located in Milan's Piazza Buonarroti (in the same neighborhood as Maria Callas' bourgeois Milan apartment), it was designed by Italian architect, Camillo Boito, brother of Verdi's frequent co-collaborating librettist, Arrigo, crowned by a Verdi statue in the piazza's roundabout.
After 111 years, it offers its guests (with a median age of 85) 33 single rooms, four mini apartments (for couples) and seven double rooms. There are music rooms, a physical therapy studio and a library and an in-house crypt holds the bodies of Verdi and his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi. Famous benefactors include Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, who left six million euros to the private foundation.
Here's Michieletto’s statement on his new production -- which opens on Monday night with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic and Ambrogio Maestri in the title role -- interiors complete with the famous Giovanni Boldini oil portrait of a jaunty middle-aged Verdi (OC’s translation, k thnx bi!):
I set the opera in the Casa di riposo per musicisti Giuseppe Verdi di Milano, which was designed by the architect Camillo Boito during the same period that his brother, the writer Arrigo Boito, had written Falstaff alongside Verdi. The composer had wanted this retirement home for, 'old artists who didn't have the chance in life to have the virtue of saving up' which is what made me think of Falstaff as an old retired singer of the past who wasn't well identified, more or less glorious, surrounded by the characters who needed him and incited him continuously to be Falstaff. In the opera, the themes of melancholy, of getting old and of death constantly emerge. The protagonist lives in a condition of remembrance, because his reality is the imperfection of waiting around for death. And the whole episode unfolds a bit like a memory, a dream or a joke: Falstaff in a single moment watches his entire life flash before his eyes.
We were at La Scala in February for Robert Carsen's youth-obsessed Falstaff and although we thought it was brilliant, Michieletto's Casa Verdi billet-doux would have been significant in such an important anniversary year. We're already touching our Hermès silk scarves to our eyes at Michieletto's gesture, a (hopefully non-exploitive) testament to those old maestri who’ve scarified themselves to the muses of art and music, tucked behind Casa Verdi’s thick walls -- passed over, but no longer forgotten.