Verdi’s Comic Opera Falstaff at Virginia Opera
By Montague Gammon III
A lighthearted approach and a staging rich in gleeful jokes characterize the Virginia Opera Association’s Hampton Roads premiere of Verdi’s “valedictory” opera, Falstaff.
The production is a “celebration,” says British-born stage director Stephen Lawless, of the 200th Anniversary of the composer’s birth, a celebration “of a man whose life was in the theatre, and particularly of his great inspiration from Shakespeare,” whose plays supplied the plots for several of Verdi’s operas.
In Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito gave the great playwright’s fat, libidinous, larcenous and usually secondary character center stage and title billing.
As a regional premiere, it’s been a long time coming; Verdi wrote it 120 years ago.
Anyone who can quickly “do the math” found something noteworthy. Verdi was 80 when he turned out a score that is universally regarded as being fresh and lively and in every way a first rate work.
Lawless says that Verdi famously commented that he wrote Falstaff “for himself … not as an audience piece.”
The VOA show’s celebratory tone is tuned to Sir John Falstaff’s joie de vivre, his lust for life, and his hearty embrace of humor that lets him “transcend” bad memories, embarrassment and hard times.
Yet the opera is anything but froth.
Lawless points out the serious, even movingly sad moments in the opera. For example, one husband who wrongly believes his wife is cheating on him sings an aria about jealousy, and ends it sobbing. (Then Lawless undercuts the pathos with a Shakespearean sight gag and literary allusion, a neat bit of irony and theatrically referential, reverencial humor that flashes quickly before the audience.)
Much of the Falstaff plot comes from Shakespeare’s (supposedly royally bespoke script) The Merry Wives of Windsor, but it was Boito, Lawless points out, who gave Sir John, his friends and his rivals a final song about how “All the world’s a joke.”
Easier said than done for folks who do not have Falstaff’s capacity to find fun where others might find humiliation, to “transcend,” again in Lawless’s term, life’s negative experiences.
He has been caught out trying to woo two women simultaneously, for their money. After an elaborate series of plots and counterplots, some real physical danger from aggrieved husbands, broad physical humor and practical jokes that capitalized on his gullibility and ego, Falstaff finally realizes that he was repeatedly duped by those whom he was trying to deceive.
And Verdi’s Falstaff genuinely laughs it off, as few people, real or realistically fictional, could do convincingly.
Lawless and his creative team have shifted the period of Falstaff from Shakespeare’s time of the late 16th Century, or the early 15th Century of Merry Wives of Windsor, to the era of the opera’s premiere, and have turned Falstaff from the “aging soldier [that] he is in the plays,” to an “English theatrical knight.”
“We want it to be about theatre,” he says.
Falstaff is still a con man (lecher, sot, etc.) – and who could be a better con artist than a veteran actor – but in this staging he’s a titled entertainer, down on his luck. As Lawless envisions him, Falstaff has come to the final days of his career. “No one is coming to see him anymore.” He’s been supplanted in popularity by a younger generation, perhaps by a more realistic style of acting.
But Sir John Falstaff is gleeful to the end. Like Verdi, who Lawless says, “was reluctant to write [Falstaff]… he was not sure he’d be alive [to finish it].” Falstaff was only his second comic opera among some thirty total, and he lived another 8 years after it opened, but he had closed his “life in the theatre” with guffaws, and a joyous grin.
Falstaff, by Giuseppe Verdi
Sept 27-Oct. 1
Virginia Opera Association
Harrison Opera House
160 E. Virginia Beach Blvd, Norfolk