Falstaff is Giuseppe Verdi's last opera, written virtually in secret, the composer insisting the new work was for himself alone and not intended for public performance. Nevertheless, upon completion it was premiered at La Scala in 1893, when Verdi was 80; his fame was such that anything he might write would get an immediate hearing. His death in 1901 occasioned a national outpouring of grief in Italy, with tributes on a scale surpassing the honors accorded to any other composer in history. If anything, his reputation has continued to grow since.
The centennial of his passing has sparked countless productions of virtually all of Verdi's operas around the world, not least here in Madison. The Madison Opera will cap its 40th anniversary season by presenting Falstaff on Friday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 p.m.), May 4 and 6, at the Civic Center's Oscar Mayer Theatre.
Many consider Falstaff to be the brightest jewel in Verdi's crown, yet it is rarely performed, especially compared to the sure box-office winners Rigoletto, La Traviata and Aida. For those who know and love the work, a chance to see Falstaff is a real thrill; for those who produce and must pay for it, it poses something of a threat, because it's harder to fill the seats with paying bodies.
"One reason for that," explains John DeMain, who will conduct Falstaff here, "is that unlike Verdi's early operas, Falstaff does not consist of the familiar arias and ensembles most opera-goers are accustomed to. Instead, it is through-composed."
This means that new music accompanies each segment of the dramatic text as the opera's action unfolds. In dramatic terms it also means the opera's text and score are on a fairly equal footing, whereas during most of the 18th and 19th centuries, operatic text was thoroughly subordinate to the dictates of the musical score.
Indeed, there is a lot of text in Falstaff. This is broad and witty comedy, full of verbal jokes, pratfalls and fast-moving action. The libretto was adapted from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV by Arrigo Boito, and it is delivered in Italian, often at a blistering pace. The Madison Opera will offer surtitles with English translations, as usual, but it will probably be easier to figure out what's happening by just watching the on-stage action rather than trying to catch the translations too.
The first act sets up the story. Sir John Falstaff (Steven Condy), hugely rotund and taking himself far too seriously, tells his minions Bardolf (Beau Palmer) and Pistol (Sam Smith) that he is enamored of two married women, Alice Ford (Paula Delligatti) and Meg Page (Allisanne Apple). He bids the men to carry love letters to these ladies, which they refuse for reasons of honor to do. Sending the letters by way of a page instead, the outraged Falstaff chases Bardolf and Pistol away with a broom.
In the next scene, set in Ford's garden, we meet the merry wives, Alice and Meg, plus Mistress Quickly (Josepha Gayer) and Alice's daughter Nannetta (Celena Shafer). Alice and Meg soon discover that apart from the names, they have received identical letters from Falstaff. Meanwhile, Ford (Jeff Morrissey) is out walking with Dr. Caius (Mark Schmandt), who had accused Falstaff's men of robbing him in the first scene. With them are young Fenton (Bradley Williams), Nannetta's suitor, plus Bardolf and Pistol, who have betrayed to Ford Falstaff's designs on his wife. Both groups, the men and women, separately plot revenge, which unfolds hilariously in the second and third acts. During all this Nannetta and Fenton steal a few romantic moments together, out of sight of the disapproving Ford.
The action is resolved in a good-natured way: Ford is forced to bless the union of his daughter Nannetta and Fenton, and a chastened Falstaff observes that "We are born for humor, life is a farce."
In addition to the ten principal roles, there is a chorus of 30 adults. Ten children also participate, meaning that at one point there will be 50 people on stage, working in a fairly tight setting from the Chautauqua Opera, built to suggest Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Managing this traffic is but one of the many tasks that fall to stage director Jay Lesenger.
"This opera is beautifully structured," Lesenger says. "It's clear, fast and efficient, with nothing extraneous. The main challenge of directing it is to get the timing right, to render the visual and textual jokes to just the right beat."
Lesenger and DeMain concur that the music of Falstaff is extraordinary, the pinnacle of Verdi's long line of masterpieces.
"Falstaff gives us Shakespeare's portrayal of real human lives in all their dimensions and psychological implications," says DeMain. "The text and music join as a joyous reminder of what we are."
While watching portions of two early staging rehearsals, I got a sense for how joy will manifest in this production, and can also report hearing much very good singing. Finding singers for the Madison Opera is one of DeMain's strengths, a result of his long tenure with the Houston Grand Opera before coming to Madison and of his present role as artistic director of California's Opera Pacific; he spends a lot of time auditioning singers, always with an eye to casting the best ones in roles here and/or in California. It's thanks mainly to that effort that this Falstaff has a strong cast.
From a critical point of view I would expect even first-timers to enjoy Falstaff because it's so funny and fast-paced, even if the language is a bit of a stumbling point. It's understandable that long-time opera mavens would gravitate to works they know, the perennial favorites. Though this is my 40th season of going to live opera, this my first Falstaff. I know it well from recordings, of course, but nothing beats live performance for excitement, and I can't imagine not seeing it, since it's relatively uncommon and taking place right here.
The Madison Opera's general director, Ann Stanke, concedes that advance ticket sales for Falstaff are a bit behind where she would like them to be. "But not so far behind that I'm alarmed," she says with a brave smile.
The company's financial situation has not been as secure this season as Stanke would have liked, in part as a result of a smaller than expected turnout for last summer's production of Bon Appetit and The Music Shop at MATC's Mitby Theater.
"However," Stanke notes, "we think we are doing a lot of things right. We will open our final dress rehearsal to area youth, and we continue to seek new audience support through our 'pay as much as you can' campaign."
To be on the safe side, the next season will skip a summer event and focus on lower-risk operas, Puccini's ever-popular Madama Butterfly, conducted by John DeMain, and, in collaboration with the Madison Rep, Mozart's Don Giovanni, conducted by Louis Salemno and directed by the Rep's artistic director, Scott Glasser.
Further ahead, Madison Opera anticipates the opening of the Overture Center during the 2003-04 season, most likely in the spring of 2004. "We will finally be able to use sets on a par with our artistic abilities," Stanke remarks, noting that present plans are to offer Turandot, Puccini's most ambitious opera, as their first production in the new hall.
"One of the best things about Overture," she adds, "was working with other resident user groups to develop common goals. The design team was very receptive to our needs for wing space, fly space, stage facilities and dressing rooms. We are continuing to work on our scheduling concerns and on how to fund a state-of-the-art surtitle system." They also hope that by the time the Overture Center opens, the company's financial picture will be strong enough to support a third large-scale production each season.
Isthmus, April, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson