My opera buddy and I author Janet Walker agreed we both enjoyed our lark in the dark, at the Arts Centre in Melbourne on Monday night December 1 immensely. The characters in Opera Australia’s cheeky production of Verdi’s Falstaff on opening night went through their paces of this pre-festive farce of folly and fun in fine style, proving ‘the one who laughs last, laughs longest’.
During his 74th year (1887) Italian composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813 – 1901) set the libretto to miraculously fresh contemporary music, revealing both his advancing age, and the spirit that prevailed during his times had not wearied him.
Through clever creative musical narration he gradually unveils a larger than life Sir John Falstaff as an opportunistic comically unsuccessful silly seducer, whose ego is way bigger than his rotund girth.
Originally guided by much acclaimed director Simon Phillips and with Hugh Halliday as revival director, this Falstaff is full of warmth and feeling. The foolishness all takes place on a superbly designed set that caters well to those capering about in such carefree style.
Throughout Opera Australia’s Falstaff Verdi’s music is always captivating, often thrilling in what is a delightfully picturesque opera ‘buffa’ of the very best kind. Visually sumptuous and full of glorious singing, with great conviction the current production of Falstaff is a great success.
Falstaff is a character audiences related to well in both Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s lifetimes, as he still does in ours today, because he is full of human frailty.
The ‘Merry Wives’ at Melbourne were a trio of stunning sopranos Jane Ede as Mrs Alice Ford, mezzo Jacqueline Dark as Mrs Meg Page and mezzo Dominica Matthews as Mistress Quickly. Their singing was not only very fine but also sometimes completely sublime.
Together with Taryn Fiebig as Nannetta, Alice’s daughter, they did their best to steal the show with great clarity and spot on comedic timing. They ensured it was a memorable experience, enacting seamless choreographic moves as they outwitted their fat foe, as well as the men in their lives.
These four women when together made the show a memorable experience.
Nannetta and Fenton as a dynamic duo are integral to the hijinks and scheming going down.
Much in demand lovely soprano Taryn Fiebig shines as Alice’s daughter Nannetta.
Her voice sweet and pure is particularly beguiling, especially for her handsome suitor Fenton, played with great tenderness by Jonathon Abernethy.
His lyrical tenor voice is a superb instrument, one in which art meets the heart, in a style that is pure, natural and clear, his exquisite phrasing born of musical intelligence.
This young man exhibits true staying power. His aria in Act 3 Dal labbro il canto, or Fenton’s aria, was quite breathtaking.
The girls glided gloriously around the stage, their bell like voices ringing out like Valkryies; beautiful maidens bringing the souls of slain warriors to a particular kind of hell, while taking the mickey out of the guys.
Verdi sweated every detail about how his comedic work should be performed; sung and acted and what is a ‘right royal’ witty entertainment, an independent work of great artistic integrity.
One of the greatest laugh aloud moments of the evening is near the end when Falstaff finally suggests to the audience he invoke a rousing chorus from all his friends to end the show in scintillating style.
It is well-known historically that Verdi admired the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who modelled his main character on the very dubious Sir John Oldcastle (died December 1417), a friend of King Henry V of England, who famously escaped prosecution for heresy.
Being so openly bold originally opened England’s most famous writer up to libel action, and so he quickly changed his lead character’s name to Falstaff.
Verdi admired Will’s work and famously turned three of his plays into Operas and for Falstaff he worked well with librettist Arrigo Boito.
He became renowned for painstakingly analyzing and studying Shakespeare’s diverse individual rhetoric to best reflect its essence in his music.
There is a great deal of splendid stylish singing from this very fine ensemble cast, accompanied with great enthusiasm by Orchestra Victoria, the splendid players guided by the experienced baton of Christian Badea.
There is a short sweet lute solo as a standout.
The story opens with Falstaff, aka Warwick Fyfe sweating it out quite literally in a huge fat suit.
Falstaff is drinking with his two henchmen in a local tavern; the delightful Bardolph played with pizzaz by tenor Kanen Breen, and his very capable sidekick Pistol, Jud Arthur, both of whom are having the time of their lives.
They are being challenged by the not very nice Dr Caius, Graeme Macfarlane, who is accusing them all of unseemly behaviour. He believes they have robbed him the night before and they put up with his rants for a while before throwing him out.
Falstaff has run up a huge bill and doesn’t know how he’s going to repair his finances so puts forward a preposterous idea to seduce two wives of prominent Windsor citizens so he can somehow obtain money by menaces.
This first scene tended to be a bit tentative at first, probably opening night nerves and just for a moment their normally powerful and truly superb voices seemed drowned out in places by the orchestra, at least where we were seated. Our neighbour we found out had a similar experience. Magically it changed dramatically in act two, when it seemed all involved had received our telepathic message. All was forgiven as a great deal of very fine singing ensued.
Baritone Warwick Fyfe has a really rich and wonderful voice and this is not an easy role to sing, basically he’s delivering a dialogue that takes rare genius to perform. And he proves he has what it takes.
Fyfe balances brilliantly and precariously on a knife-edge as Verdi’s nasty and nonsensical, ridiculous and rustic fool.
He packs a great deal of humour into his masterly moves and intentionally his Falstaff is not a particularly loveable character, although he’s not one to be pitied either.
In contrast to the lead in Don Pasquale, where I felt the star playing the fool was a bit over the top, there was one scene where my buddy Janet and I felt he was slightly underplaying it; hiding out behind a screen we wanted Falstaff to remain animated and connected to the audience.
Basically you would have to be really tired with life though to not enjoy every aspect of this stunning show and Warwick Fyfe’s powerful performance.
There is so much great action, glorious singing and energetic action going down it’s mesmerizing.
Like the cast, the audience are called upon to be forgiving of any faults they detect, which I believe was part of Verdi’s psychology plot; he was deliberately opening them up to coming to terms with their own foibles and frailties. From an observer’s point of view we humans are a silly lot at times and learning to laugh at ourselves, a gift.
The scene where Alice Ford and Meg Page both receive identical love letters from Sir John Falstaff and share their amusement with Alice’s daughter Nannetta, and with their friend Mistress Quickly is quite delicious.
Alice’s husband Ford played by Michael Honeyman arrives. He is ‘followed by four men proffering advice: Dr. Caius, whom Ford favors as Nannetta’s future husband; Bardolph and Pistol seeking advantageous employment from Ford; and Fenton, in love with Ford’s daughter Nannetta’*
Ford learns of Falstaff’s plan to seduce his wife and is completely outraged and disguising himself and throwing caution to the wind, confronts this fat old fool plotting how he can out manoeuvre him
Honeyman has an outstanding range in a voice that grabs you instantly and holds you captive all night long; he was so convincing in OA’s dramatic Carmen back in May, and he excels once more in this fabulous farce.
Alice and Meg are busy plotting too. They want to take revenge on their importunate suitor, while in the midst of all the commotion Nannetta and Fenton steal precious moments together away from her father’s eye.
Act 2 is all about Falstaff’s failed visit and seduction of Alice and after a great deal of merriment and hiding very successfully behind a frail folding screen delightfully ends up hiding out in a huge wicker laundry basket at the Merry Wives urging.
Inevitably after a ‘carry on’ chase the basket with Falstaff still inside is hilariously upended out the window and into the River Thames. How inglorious.
Meanwhile replacing Falstaff behind the folded screen as her father and his followers search the house, Nanetta and Fenton are at it again.
Act 3 has the girls and guys getting together to have it out with Falstaff once and for all, their friends and followers ending up as fairies and elves famously getting around on their knees in the mist of Great Windsor Park, insisting Falstaff mend his ways.
This scene above all highlighted the brilliance of the choreographed movements of the cast, which are created so succinctly and contribute to the show’s success. It is a visual delight and the icing on the cake.
Ford, trying his best on behalf of the boys as he endeavours to enact a sub plot of his own, hoping to trick his daughter into marrying old Dr Caius.
The girls however are still out in front where they remain as they have had wind of the double cross and wanting to see the young lovers end up together, dress Bardolph up in drag as the bride. God help the groom.
Those merry wives convince Ford to conduct a ‘double marriage’ so as expected Nannetta and Fenton end up in each other’s arms with Bardolph in the good doctors.
There is no fool like an old one after all and the audience well we all want romance and love to triumph over all as well and cheer them on.
Ford without knowing it has now become the subject of ridicule himself. Having been tricked, he comes to realise that he really has no choice but to forgive the lovers and bless their marriage.
Sir John Falstaff by now humbled and contrite takes charge, urging the entire company to agree that the whole world may be nothing but a jest filled with jesters, and that man should enjoy his folly because ‘he who laughs last, laughs best’.
The nineteenth century after Verdi had gone to musical heaven was all about the growth of new industries and opera, formerly the preserve of an eighteenth century aristocracy was in a mode of great change.
Opera spread its wings far and wide enfolding nineteenth and eventually twentieth century enthusiasts within its wings, as the stars of opera gained celebrity status. They expanded audiences and grew an appreciation for the wonderful music of love and life.
We have become accustomed to many fine forms of entertainment in the last fifty years and directors and casts today have a huge responsibility to underpin the details as they contribute so much to a fabulous whole.
OA’s Falstaff shines brightly in the musical firmament, the light of love reflecting off Verdi’s rare melodic jewel with distinction.
We felt sure Verdi himself would have enjoyed the performance as we did. The audience, well they revealed their appreciation through long, loud and appropriate cat calling acclamation.
This delicious confection was a truly delightful way to end a successful operatic musical year. Thanks Opera Australia. Happy Christmas to all, go and continue to sing well.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne
DECEMBER 1 – 11, 2014
*Succinct summing up The Met Opera’s synopsis of the show.