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Falstaff

Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson as Sir John Falstaff
Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson as Sir John Falstaff
Photo: Kelly Maxwell
 
As he approached 80 years of age, Giuseppe Verdi thought he had written his last opera. The 27 that he had composed had put him in the Pantheon of the greats; but of those works, only one was a comedy, and not a successful one at that. Following the success of Otello (1887), he confided in his libretist, Arrigo Boito, that "After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at last the right to laugh a little." Boito said nothing at the time, but secretly began working on a libretto based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, with additional material from Henry IV, Parts I & II.

Both Verdi and Boito were great admirers of Shakespeare (Verdi had also composed Macbeth in 1847), and had considered King Lear as a subject, while turning down suggestions that he embrace A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and Antony and Cleopatra. But when Boito approached him with his first draft of Falstaff, Verdi was full of praise and jumped on it, despite his initial misgivings due to his age. Thus, on February 9, 1893, Falstaff premiered at Milan's La Scala.

As is often the case, critics and audiences are disappointed when an artist moves away from his or her comfort zone, and it was no different for Verdi with Falstaff, after the initial excitement subsided over the new opera from the master. Where are the big traditional arias, "the broad melodies ... the finales," they carped. And by the time of Verdi's death in 1901, the work had faded from the repertoire. It was Arturo Toscanini who revived it, insisting that it was Verdi's greatest work. "I believe it will take years and years before the general public understand this masterpiece, but when they really know it they will run to hear it like they do now for Rigoletto and La traviata." And we see the sparks of genius to which Toscanini refers in Opera Colorado's orchestra's well-textured rendition of Verdi's score, let by music director Ari Pelto.

The heart of the opera is, of course, Shake-speare's knight errant, Falstaff, who is completely and unapologetically ruled by his senses, desires, and appetites. Actor Michael Winters, known for his portrayal of Taylor Doose, the self-serving selectman and mercantilist on television's The Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), who played Falstaff (at the 2014 Colorado Shakespeare Festival) in Henry IV, Parts I and II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (upon all of which Verdi's Falstaff is based), describes the great scoundrel thus:

"Much of Falstaff's appeal is his lack of concern for the constraints of civilization. He has no concept of coloring inside the lines. His wit, shrewdness, and almost complete lack of shame represent a kind of total freedom from what is expected of us in society. He brings a subversive joy to us, though we might not all want to have to deal with him in real life."

Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff and mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller as Dame Quickly
Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff
and mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller as Dame Quickly
Photo: Matthew Staver
Hats off to Olafur Sigurdarson, who fully embodies Falstaff's grand self-indulgence and gluttony, with a strong and melifluous bass-baritone that fills the hall. In Boito's libretto, Falstaff's self-assuredness from his ventures with Hal (who later becomes Henry V), in Henry IV, Parts I and II, comes after the plotline of The Merry Wives of Windsor, where (in Shake-speare) Falstaff is older, but it works: negating any repentance that the larger-than-life gourmand may have felt after the embarassment and ridicule he suffered from being the one to wear the horns (at the end of Merry Wives). Thus, Boito immortalizes Falstaff in a way that could not have been done in Shake-speare's time, given the strong hierarchical (monarchal) paradigm of the natural order during the Elizabethan age.

The character who knows Falstaff best is Dame Quickly (Dana Beth Miller), who also appears in Shake-speare's three plays with him, as well the sequel, Henry V, where she announces Falstaff's death. In Boito's libretto, her friendship with Falstaff from the Henry plays is excised, and we see her as Falstaff's nemisis, as is the case in Merry Wives. Miller—as the clever go-between for Meg Page and Alice Ford, delivering their seductive, trap-setting responses to Falstaff's overtures—has great fun preying on Falstaff's egotism and weakness of character.

Soprano Susannah Biller as Nannetta and tenor Mingjie Lei as Fenton
Soprano Susannah Biller as Nannetta
and tenor Mingjie Lei as Fenton
Photo: Matthew Staver
The central commedia dell'arte elements of the plot involve the ingenue, Nannetta (Susannah Biller) and her sweetheart, Fenton (Mingjie Lei), who successfully avoid Master Ford's (Marco Nisticó) scheme to marry his daughter to the rich lecher, Dr. Caius (Alex Mansoon). Biller's soprano is a wonder!

And while the stage direction and sets fall short in some key areas—for example, a clumsy laundry scene, in which the merry wives hide Falstaff, and the young lovers hide themselves, from Ford, or the flat perspective of Windsor village, or the obviousness of the edges of the scrim and its wires in the Herne's Oak scene—the vocal performances and acting win the day.

Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff
Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff
Photo: Matthew Staver
In the end, Boito's testament to the foolish Falstaff adds significant gusto to the character's literary heritage. When he remarks at the end that "All the world's a joke," we see that this is the only way such a profligate could justify his behavior.

Opera Colorado's presentation of Falstaff completes its run with performances on May 11th and 13th. For tickets: operacolorado.org.

Bob Bows



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