As the curtain drops at the end of the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Falstaff, it becomes clear who is the real victim of the preceding three hours of sharply delivered lulz. Us!
In the closing bars of the resounding postlude Bachian fugue sung by the entire cast and chorus the house lights bewilderingly go up – some people actually started to clap – the cheek of it – until shushed by Falstaff.
Then, the pot-bellied knight, followed by everyone onstage, scans the entire audience, balconies, boxes and all, with pointed finger, while singing that the whole world is a jest and we, the audience are victims as much as the players onstage. We have been tricked. Simply watching ourselves.
Lights out. Curtain down. And darkness. Except for an illuminated set of cuckold’s antlers, spot lit in front of the curtain. Falstaff’s antlers. We may have laughed mightily as he was ditched in the Thames from a laundry basket through Alice Ford’s window, but who are the dupes now? It is a wonderful “send home” visual stunt from director Robert Carson.
Falstaff is Verdi’s final opera, written when he was 80. Hauled out of retirement by the librettist, Arrigo Boito, Verdi, the great composer of “history” operas – Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos – or penetrating social tragedies – Rigoletto, La Traviata, La forza del destino – was persuaded to return to comedy. His only other comic opera, Un giorno di regno, his second ever, (1840), had been a failure.
Topical aside. That leader of the opera-resurrectionist movement, Wexford Festival Opera, exhumed the Un giorno di regno corpse in 1981, and it seemed as unamusing then as it had to audiences in 1840. Hum, ho, Wexford can’t win them all. Nor can Verdi.
So, is Falstaff a casual, end of career “farewell tour” simply to prove the critics who claimed Verdi could not write comedy wrong? Far from it. It is the culmination of Verdi’s evolving musical style, with razor sharp humour in every phrase. A wonderful collaboration between composer and librettist.
Verdi knew he had written a challenging work. Good singing alone would not deliver. Acting ability was essential. He fired the original choice for Meg Paige, because she was not a good enough actress. Michael Heaston, the Met’s artistic and casting director since 2021 – who, curiously, receives no credit in the programme – has done a magnificent job casting this revival production.
Not one of the ten cast showed any weakness in the acting department. The revival stage director, Gina Lapinski, successfully synchronised every bar of music with onstage action. Just as Verdi intended. As in the moment in Act II when Falstaff rattles the suitcase of used fivers given to him by the fictional character, Fontana – Ford in disguise – perfectly in time to a seven-note, rapidly oscillating phrase from the violins.
For the person unfamiliar with the plot, who still thinks Boris Johnson can’t spot a party when he’s drinking at one, a full synopsis can be found here.
This is a conflict opera, much in the sense of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Groups of characters are established, who vie with each other for supremacy and are determined to teach a villain a lesson. In the Mozart, Donna Elvira and Donna Anna lead the campaign for rake retribution and it all resolves in tragedy as Don Giovanni heads south to Satan.
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The interplay among the various factions in Falstaff is more nuanced. Alice Ford, Meg Paige and Mistress Quickly gang up to fool the lecher who has sent Ford and Paige the same love letter. They also want to teach Ford, the uber-suspicious husband, a lesson. Ford, along with Falstaff’s ex cronies, Bardolfo and Pistola and most of the chorus, are, in turn, determined to trap Falstaff and Ford’s wife, Alice, in flagrante.
There is a subplot involving Nanetta, the Fords’ daughter, and her boyfriend, Fenton. Ford wants Nanetta to marry the ancient – but rich – Dr Caius. Spoiler alert, Nanetta gets married to Fenton in the end because Ford is so ashamed of having doubted Alice that he has to give in to preserve family unity.
Whereas Don Giovanni burns, Falstaff is redeemed. The morality play does not require the damnation of the flawed, fat lecher-in chief. In 1893 it was time for Verdi to laugh a little. Having massacred so many heroes and heroines over fifty years, in Falstaff someone gets married, no-one gets buried.
Musically, Falstaff is delivered mostly by ensemble singing. Arias seem to start for a few bars, but then meld with the rest. There are no set pieces. A few recurring themes such as Go on Old John – Falstaff’s two fingers at his advancing years, chanted repeatedly in self-delusion – identify the characters.
Two ensemble scenes stand out for their complexity. At the end of Act 1 we are in a classy restaurant. Alice, Meg, Nanetta and Mistress Quickly are at one table stage right. Ford, Bardolfo and Pistola at another, stage left. Ten different harmonies onstage at the same time seems impossible to coordinate, but Maestro Daniele Rustioni pulled it off.
The other is in the final Act, when Falstaff is being tormented by the antlered woodland spirits, branding knives and gently prodding him as he rolls back and forth. “Picketa, picketa, picketa,” they chant.
Prior to the performance, Chorus Master, Donald Palumbo and a dozen or so choristers, had visited us upstairs at the Metropolitan Opera Club, where we hold jolly pre-performance dinners and enjoy the occasional privilege of being given a glimpse behind the scenes.
Maestro Palumbo and his charges described how difficult it was to convey the precision of the sharp knife prods in perfect unison. It might sound like a pointless detail. But every great operatic performance consists of many “pointless” details being drawn together. The chorus managed the important prod scene to perfection.
Two singers stood out. Michael Volle, a German Wagnerian baritone, as Falstaff. And Bogdan Volkov, a Ukrainian-born tenor, now living in the USA, who sang Fenton.
Volle was the perfect Falstaff. Too often he is portrayed as a fat, bumbling Father Christmas character. Volle gave him some degree of normality, in spite of the reference to the 1,000 voices in his belly in Act I. His long journey from initial self-deception that he had only to write a letter for women to swoon, to his final acceptance of having thrice being made the fool.
Volkov has one of those lyrical tenor voices that pins your ears back the moment he fires up. I have not seen him perform before. I’m pretty sure I shall see him again. He offers a clear, virile tenor tone which gives everything he sings a powerful sense of direction.
Then there was the horse. At the opening of Act III Falstaff, fresh-ish from the Thames, is reclining in the courtyard of The Garter Inn on a bale of straw. A horse is sticking its head out from a stable, munching a bag of hay with all the docility its providers, All-Tame Animals Inc, were contractually bound to deliver.
The horse had other ideas. It snorted loudly during Falstaff’s laments. Perhaps in sympathy. Then it occurred to me. There are often horses on the Met stage. Why?
Having done my Clouseau diligence I understand that a substantial donor to the Met insisted that, when the donation was being used to fund a particular production, a horse from Central Park Carriages had to appear onstage.
Clearly, there has been a trust-bust and all true defenders of horse rights can celebrate that All-Tame Animals Inc now provides the unpredictable snorters. The bag of hay ensured it poked its head continuously from the stable window, guzzling contentedly. What was going on behind the scenes to encourage its immobility, I can’t imagine.
The opera ends with something unusual. A whole cast fugue, aimed, I think, as a sign-off Verdi hat tip to Johann Sebastian Bach. The ensemble at The Lincoln Center delivered a tour de force.
While it provides an endless stream of comedic action Falstaff is a masterwork of psychological power as well. Disguised as farce, it forces audiences to confront the truths of passing time. Everyone goes home more self-aware than when they settled into their seats.
Verdi claimed the work, jam-packed with lulz – helped him cope with his passing years. (I tripped across “lulz” – slang for laughter at someone else’s expense, a corruption of LOL – rather liked it, and intend to beat the term to death, or until a sharpish sub-editor blue-pencils me).
Verdi died in 1901. His Falstaff still entertains, while making audiences reflect deeply, too. Who really goes home wearing the horns? Probably everybody…
PS. Nevill Holt Opera announced on Friday by email to ticket holders that this season’s production of Pagliacci and Schicchi, a hugely popular double bill, has been cancelled because of insufficient ticket sales. It is a sad sign of the times.
The Leicestershire based opera company is continuing with La Cenerentola and War Horse – The Concert. Short commons compared with their usual season.
Part of Nevill Holt’s problem is that it is located nearly four hours north of London, at the wonderful 13th century manor house owned by David Ross, formerly the largest shareholder in Carphone Warehouse. Less accessible than its Surrey/Sussex competitors in the south.
Here’s hoping that the “increasingly tough challenges that face the arts” referenced in the press release are not a harbinger of worse news to come.
I am now going to navigate the website to try to engineer a ticket swap. The enterprising opera company has mounted excellent productions in recent years and deserves support.
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