Sir John Falstaff is the most famous comic character in the Shakespeare canon, appearing in no less than three of the plays. With roots in the commedia dell’arte, Falstaff is a braggart, a lecher, a con man, and a manipulative liar. Yet his bigger than life appetites and self-indulgences strike a chord of universal recognition–there’s at least a bit of him in everyone, allowing both laughter (at him and, by implication, at ourselves) and a degree of sympathy with the character.
Verdi’s comic opera, Falstaff, is based directly on the Shakespeare character, using The Merry Wives of Windsor as its principal source. It is Verdi’s last opera, following the near-perfection of his Otello six years earlier which was also created with his frequent collaborator, librettist Arrigo Boito. Falstaff was first performed at La Scala in February, 1893–the year that Verdi was to turn 80–and the opera was a popular and critical success, a triumph for the aging maestro.
While Falstaff is the dominant character in the opera, it is an ensemble piece. There is no overture; the curtain rises as the music begins and the audience is instantly involved in the complaints of one of Falstaff’s victims, Doctor Caius. After Caius is thrown out of the inn, the scheming of this incorrigible rogue begins; he is sending identical love letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page, both married to men of means, with the primary intention of milking them for money–though he anticipates pleasures of the flesh as well. Falstaff sings a long, ironic monologue on the subject of honor, cynically concluding that honor is nothing but a word. "Can honor fill your belly," he asks?
Falstaff’s ruse is quickly discovered by the wives and Ford; two separate plots of revenge are hatched, seeking retribution by utilizing Falstaff’s own vanity and overconfidence to bring him down. There is a subplot for two young lovers, Nannetta (the Fords’ daughter) and a young swain, Fenton. There are disguises, cross-dressing, plots and counterplots. When Falstaff does get his comeuppance in the end, his good humor prevails. All join in a final chorus, the fugue, "Everything in the world is a jest," which concludes "He laughs best who has the final laugh."
The finely knit machinations of the plot, the inventive sparkle of the music, and the general tone of forgiveness for human foibles and weaknesses all come together in a grand amalgam of musical theater, one that demands a combination of appropriate vulgarity and refined taste, and the consistency of a well blended ensemble performance. When all the ingredients are present, Falstaff is as good as it gets.
San Francisco Opera’s current Falstaff brings back a sixteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production which uses a framework of Tudor beams within which scenic elements are introduced for the various locations. It cleverly extends the action at various times to the edges of the stage apron, bringing the show right into the audience, and it uses the device of turning up the house lights during the final chorus, making sure it is understood that when they sing "We all are figures of fun" the audience is not exempt.
The weakness of the performance, unfortunately, is the Falstaff of John Del Carlo, a long time SFO veteran who has generally appeared in supporting roles and has undeniable comedic skill. But Del Carlo’s voice was embarrassingly unequal to this score; his upper register was just about totally absent. Give the man credit for bravely carrying on and staying in character. One can only speculate on why he was cast in the first place.
Without its central voice, of course, the evening is seriously compromised. But there were pleasures to be had in bits and pieces if not in the whole. Soprano Nancy Gustafson, another SFO veteran, was in splendid voice as Mistress Alice Ford. She has developed into a confident and poised actress as well, demonstrating here a flair for comedy. Anna Netrebko, a favorite with SFO audiences, has a higher, edgier soprano that she projects with clarity and seemingly effortless power. She is perfect in the ingenue role of Nannetta and found herself opposite an attractive young tenor making his SFO debut, Paul Groves. Baritone Dwayne Croft, in an overdue SFO debut, was fine as Ford, especially effective in his Act II aria bemoaning his cuckoldry.
Mezzo Elena Zaremba as Mistress Quickly also has a comic flair, but in her case it went over the line into distracting hamminess. Put the blame for that on stage director Vera L�cia Calabria for whom understatement seems an unknown quality. If a handful of coins are to be scattered, why not three or four? A suggestive shadow play between the young lovers behind a sheet hanging on a clothesline was executed poorly and had all of three easily amused people in the entire audience laughing. Verdi and Boito do not need this level of provincial slapstick to make their points.