By the close of his long eventful life, Giuseppe Verdi had composed a remarkable grand total of thirty operas and yet only two titles in his catalogue are comedies and of those, only one can be thought of as a masterpiece.
Verdi’s first buffa offering, Un giorno di regno (“King for a Day”), written at the age of twenty-seven, very nearly ended his career before it had properly begun. Audiences were spectacularly indifferent. Truth to tell, Verdi was in no fit mental state to be light-hearted while working on the piece. Within the space of only a few months, he lost both his two children and much adored wife to sudden illness. It was not until 1889, almost a full half century later, that Verdi allowed himself to smile again, at least in a creative sense.
On the urging of his good friend and publisher Giulio Ricordi, the brilliant dramaturge Arrigo Boito sent the great man his recently completed libretto for Falstaff. The two had collaborated on an explosive Otello several years earlier, sparked to genius by frequent artistic spats. Ricordi, ever the shrewd manager, calculated that Verdi’s passion for Shakespeare would ignite another burst of operatic fireworks. The gamble paid off. Verdi tore through Boito’s adaptation, an uproarious co-mingling of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor with a sprinkle of As You Like It added to the mix. In less than six months the music was complete. Falstaff was an immediate sensation. Beneath all the hilarity and crackling high spirits, audiences seemed to sense the seventy-year old maestro’s final summing up — his acceptance of human frailty, his solid moral instincts, his fundamentally tender nature. Comedies may have bookended Verdi’s career but it was Falstaff that rounded it out.
Opera Hamilton brings Verdi’s intensely satisfying late work to life in a new uproarious production currently playing at the city’s Dofasco Centre for the Arts. With its roster of experienced master singers and fresh young talent, director Allison Grant’s fun-loving cast makes seemingly light work of Falstaff’s extravagant theatricality and urgent score. The skewering of human folly on show is delicious. Falstaff’s outrageous libretto is delightfully well-served.
An impoverished nobleman, Sir John Falstaff, plans to reverse his financial misfortune by wooing the wealthy Alice Ford and her friend, Mistress Meg. The dissolute old knight writes each of the women a love letter but his peevish servants, Bardolfo and Pistola, refuse to deliver the notes. Infuriated, Falstaff dispatches a page instead.
The hours pass. Alice, daughter Nannetta and Meg meet local busybody, Dame Quickly, in Ford’s garden. The two Windsor wives have just received identical flowery missives. Meanwhile, Alice’s husband, a prosperous merchant, has also caught wind of Falstaff’s unlikely amorous scheme thanks to the portly knight’s turncoat henchmen. Alice and Meg are outraged by the smear on their unblemished virtue. Ford is seized with jealousy. Elsewhere, Nannetta and her secret suitor, Fenton, steal hidden kisses knowing full well that Ford has forbidden it. Nannetta is to marry her father’s unlikeable associate, Dr. Caius. Alice plots to send word to Falstaff, luring him to a clandestine rendezvous where she will take revenge. Ford has plans of his own.
Dame Quickly finds Falstaff at the local inn. Alice’s invitation is promptly delivered. Mistress Ford will meet Falstaff that very afternoon while her husband is out and about as usual. No sooner has Quickly left when Ford arrives, disguised as a certain Signor Fontana. He too wishes to win the heart of Alice. Much to Falstaff’s amusement, the lusty stranger hires the portly old knight to court her.
Falstaff arrives at Alice’s house, dressed for romance, but before he can ply his dubious charms, Ford storms onto the scene in person, determined to catch his wife’s seducer in the act. Alice and her allies quickly hide Falstaff in a laundry hamper and dump him into the nearby Thames.
Half-drowned and bedraggled, Falstaff hauls himself ashore at sunset, bitterly cursing his fate. Dame Quickly brings word of yet another assignation. Alice will meet him in a nearby forest at the foot of Herne’s Oak. He is to come dressed as the Black Huntsman. Confused and suspicious, Falstaff reluctantly agrees.
Later that night under cover of darkness, Falstaff, wearing stag’s antlers, stumbles up to the great oak tree unaware that Alice and company have one last act of humiliation in store for him. A moonlit array of goblins and elves, witches and fairies are unleashed, or at least their costumed equivalents from town. The spooky mummers circle and haunt their trembling victim. It takes a slip of a demon’s shroud before Falstaff finally sees through the charade. The joke is over. Or is it? The night’s revels are to be crowned with the Queen of the Fairies’ wedding. Ford is to officiate. Two billowy veiled brides are presented. By the time the ceremony is over, Ford realizes not only has he been tricked into marrying Dr. Caius to Bardolfo but Nannetta and Fenton have been wed as well. Revelation and forgiveness prevail. Falstaff is not the only one ever to play the part of Fool.
No one behaves particularly admirably in Falstaff. Virtually every character’s sense of purpose is somehow compromised. Ford is an absent husband and father who treats his wife and daughter as objects of his will. Alice, Meg and Quickly’s campaign to teach Falstaff a lesson borders on the vindictive. Ironically, the old bloated knight is one of the few residents of Windsor with a clear-eyed sense of self. He makes no secret of his insatiable appetite for pleasure. Or roast chicken.
The entire cast of Opera Hamilton’s accomplished singer actors does a fine job of communicating this production’s solid theatrical values. Director Grant’s gradual unmasking of the opera’s moral masquerade is expressed in dozens of small, sharply defined moments, sometimes too many all at once. Comings and goings tend to lapse into frantic scrums. Stage business can be obsessive and distracting. But these are minor quibbles. Great opera is powered by energy and artistry. This Falstaff is fuelled by an obvious abundance of both. The pace of action is positively breathless although the addition of a second intermission does disrupt the general comic flow. The sheer exuberance of the various performances on offer, however, keeps the action rolling. The OH production, sparingly designed by Troy Hourie, may be period in look but its feel is pure Monty Python.
But Falstaff is much more than a mad riotous romp. Verdi’s music towers high above the all-too worldly proceedings on stage and here Opera Hamilton’s presentation soars.
As the opera’s title character, respected Canadian baritone, John Fanning, casts a giant shadow. His is a rowdy, sprawling, big belly laughing Falstaff awash in wine, larger than life and utterly vulnerable. With his rich, resonant tone, Fanning stares deep into the old knight’s soul to find the true man lurking beneath the caricature. Va’, vecchio John (“Go, old Jack”), Falstaff boasts to himself, luxuriating in his imagined virility, but the crowing proves as empty as a drunkard’s tankard. Unceremoniously dumped into the river, mocked and shamed, Reo mondo (“A wicked world”), becomes his anthem. Fanning makes the journey from pomposity to dejection with enormous feeling and heartbreaking humanity. It is a remarkable achievement.
James Westman sings Ford with a lighter baritone pitch than Fanning but no less strength or vibrancy. Ariosos are consistently muscular and tuneful, his ensemble contributions impeccable. The little Act II jewel box-like duet, a madrigal, sung by Ford and Falstaff is a moment to be treasured in Westman/Fanning hands.
In the role of Mistress Alice, soprano Lyne Fortin portrays Ford’s overlooked wife as a mature, confidant woman, strong and practical, but also one possessed of a roguish sense of humour. Fortin’s instrument spans a goodly range, ideal for the Alice character. Fits of rage are summoned stormily. Bemusement is expressed with a sly smile in her voice.
Mezzos Ariana Chris and Lyne McMurtry appear as Mistress Meg and Dame Quickly respectively. Both voices are exceptionally stylish, McMurtry approaching that rarest of female vocal types, contralto, at the lower end of her reach.
Sasha Djihanian is a charming Nannetta, all twinkling eyes and mischief, her singing bright and shining. Dijhanian’s sense of vocal proportion is superb, tender and pianissimo in her love scenes, thrilling and sustained in moments of abandon.
Theo Lebow with his clear, ringing tenor instantly commands attention as Nannetta’s sweetheart, Fenton. Verdi’s show stopping aria, Dal labbro il canto estasïato vola (“From my lips my song of ecstasy flies”), a celebration of a young man’s love of love, is gloriously performed by this gifted young artist.
Jon-Paul Décosse and Jeremy Blossey are suitably loutish as Falstaff’s bungling servants, Pistola and Bardolfo.
OH General Director, David Speers, does double duty as conductor, leading a rollicking orchestral charge from the Dofasco Centre’s sub-stage pit. Any suggestion of subtler, more nuanced instrumental harmony is unfortunately a matter of speculation. The full sweep of Verdi’s triumphant score fails to reach the auditorium. If ever a theatre was in need of acoustic enhancement it is this one.
Opera Hamilton has done a good deal of memorable work in the past. With its latest production the company continues to prove that modestly staged grand opera presented with passion and skill can be every bit as engaging as big budget performances depicted on a vastly broader scale. This understated, gorgeously sung Falstaff is as artistically appealing as it is entertaining. The standing ovation that greeted its launch on opening night is well deserved.