I have always struggled with Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera. My struggle began about fifty years ago, listening to a recording of the opera. I was unimpressed-it lacked melody and was not that funny, having been largely based on one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor. I then read articles about it. Although some of these contended that Verdi had outlived his ability to write striking melodies, most proclaimed it a masterpiece, but perhaps one that could only be appreciated by true opera cognoscenti. I was left feeling guilty that I did not appreciate this work, a work I was told I SHOULD like. (Some even proclaimed it to be Verdi’s greatest opera-to me that would be Otello, although my gut-level favorite is still Il trovatore.).
I attended the San Diego Opera performances in 1978 and 1999. The first time, I was impressed by the fugal finale and nothing else, the second time by the whole last scene with Nanetta’s beautiful aria, and of course, the finale. Prior to that last scene, I was looking at my watch. However, a couple of years ago, I attended a Met in HD performance in which I enjoyed the whole thing. So, it began to grow on me.
I believe the key to enjoying the first two and one half acts of this opera is a genuinely funny presentation and a cast that can do comedy and work well as an ensemble. San Diego Opera achieved this Saturday night, February 18.
Olivier Tambosi’s direction was both clever and funny, even physically funny. He had no problem with emphasizing the now politically incorrect fat jokes. It helped, of course, that he directed an outstanding cast. Baritone Roberto de Candia was an excellent Falstaff, both in singing and in acting Falstaff’s shifting moods, from anger, lust and finally acceptance of his downfall. He moved remarkably well given the “fat” costume he had to wear all night. Simon Esper and Reinhard Hagen (a bit of luxury casting) were perfect as Falstaff’s underlings, Bardolfo and Pistola, and Troy Cook was stentorian as Ford, impressing with his angry monologue. Of course, the Merry Wives themselves have to be well cast and they were with Ellie Dehn and Kristin Chavez as Alice Ford and and Meg Page respectively, and Marianne Cornetti as Mistress Quickly who excelled in her elaborate bows when addressing Falstaff. For me, the female star of the evening was Maureen McKay, whose beautiful voice excelled in the rare lyrical music that Verdi wrote for the character of Nanetta. Daniele Callegari conducted Verdi’s complex score with verve and one came to appreciate the subtle orchestral comments on the comic events occurring on stage.
The opera ends, of course, in the masterful fugue, “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” which perfectly sums up the moral of the story. The audience and I enjoyed the evening.