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Verdi’s last opera is currently at the Paris Opera, until November 16, in the 1999 staging by Dominique Pitoiset. In the title role, we find the veteran Bryn Terfel joined by, among others, Franco Vassallo, Aleksandra Kurzak, Francesco Demuro and Julie Fuchs, for an entertaining evening.
« After having massacred so many heroes and heroines without a break, I finally have the right to laugh a little » : this is the state of mind of Verdi when, in his 80s, he decided to compose Falstaff.
He was not very convinced at first, but between Rossini’s provocation, who told the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano that he considered the composer of Otello, Macbeth, Don Carlo, La Traviata and La forza del destino, unfit for the comic register, and Arrigo Boito’s insistence, who sent him in 1889 the fascinating draft of a drama based on The merry wives of Windsor, he changed his mind.
The famous Italian novelist and composer, blended several of Shakespeare’s works (Henry IV, Henry V and The merry wives of Windsor), enhanced the character of Falstaff and gave him back his psychological depth.
Falstaff is therefore a show that makes us have fun, laugh, feel sad for the unfortunate protagonist, and rejoice for an ending without murders or suicides (at least!). But we should not take it for a light work, because it shows the detached and disillusioned gaze of a Verdi at the end of his life (even worrying to die before completing the score): a clear-headed contemplation of human hypocrisy.
Vote for women!
Pitoiset chooses to set Falstaff in the Victorian era, an ideal time, with the climax of the Industrial Revolution, to highlight the social and human contradictions described in the libretto.
The contrast between the different social classes is thus found: the broke bourgeoisie and the ladies with feathered hats on one side, and on the other « all sorts of ordinary people »: the sweaty garment of the worker, the old boss of a pub, the woman hanging out the washing and the prostitute trying to earn a living.
While the importance of women as the driving force behind the plot is undeniable, the director goes further, showing their essential role in society, finally recognized by the right to vote.
For example, at the time of the municipal elections, to which Ford is a candidate, women are the first to put their ballots in the boxes.
Bryn Terfel, the perfect Falstaff
If the bass baritone alone is the epicentre of the scene, it’s not because of the big belly of his character, of which he is very proud: « This is my kingdom – I’ll extend it! », but rather because of his many artistic qualities: an exceptional charisma, a total ease on stage, a fluid and honest playing, an unparalleled musicality and an Italian that we would understand even without ever having ever read the libretto.
We notice his talent at the beginning of the 3rd act, when sitting on a wooden crate, at the edge of the stage, his endearing braggart meditates on his destiny (« Go old John, go! ») in such a sincere and honest way that he manages to create a real intimacy with the public, helped by the lights by Philippe Albaric, plunging the rest of the room into the dark and giving us the impression of having a one-on-one conversation with him.
Great singers and actors at the same time
The talented Franco Vassallo keeps up the high-level, portraying a flawless Ford with a carefully controlled voice, correct diction and a playful interpretation of the husband who thinks he is a cuckold.
Aleksandra Kurzak is a cold but sympathetic and relevant Alice Ford, too bad her Italian is not completely understandable, Varduhi Abrahamyan is a shrewd Mrs Quickly who, in spite of being slightly audible, offers us a pleasant duo « Reverenza! » by playing the role of the « female-Mercury » with ease.
Mrs Meg Page is well performed by the elegant Julie Pasturaud and Julie Fuchs proposes a naive, curious and gently stubborn Nannetta who, with the help of the other ladies succeeds in avoiding to be married to the old doctor. With her theatrical ease, her sweet voice and her long, well-rounded notes, she knows how to impose herself alongside Francesco Demuro’s charming Fenton, whose beautiful timbre is sometimes overwhelmed by a somewhat forced singing.
Rodolphe Briand and Thomas Dear are a comical and convincing duo (Bardolfo and Pistola), and Graham Clark delivers a nasty Cajus with a his shrill voice, while the choir and orchestra of the Paris Opera shine under the precise and refined direction of Fabio Luisi.
The world is a stage… of deceit
For an hour and forty minutes, Verdi twist us around his little finger, while making fun at the lowness of the human soul, experimenting with new forms (alternated with more traditional ones) and quoting, satirically, his operas and those of his colleagues, including Wagner.
The staging reflects the dynamics of music and text with the characters filling the whole set, hiding, climbing stairs, running, cycling, falling into the Thames and gathering to create pleasant compositions. Elena Rivkina’s costumes are realistic and graceful from head to toe, including elegant men’s gaiters and women’s puckish boots, which contribute to the overall aesthetics.
The funny scenes, like when Falstaff appears in underwear wearing deer horns and is publicly beaten, alternate to poetic moments, such as the beautiful ending where the grey umbrellas fill the stage, above the illuminated Herne’s oak.
A changing scenery, a vibrant setting, a funny and lively plot by both Shakespeare and Boito, a subtle libretto embodying the contemplative gaze of a great composer at the height of his career: what more could we want ?
It’s by singing the final fugue « We are all fooled! » that we plunge into the hectic Parisian night, happy and amused, savouring the subtle and detached humour of this Verdian testament.
Lyric comedy in four acts
Libretto by Arrigo Boito based on The Merry wives of Windsor, Henry IV and Henry V by William Shakespeare
Created in Milan (Teatro alla Scala) the 9th of February 1893
Scenery by Alexandre Beliaev
Costumes by Elena Rivkina
Lights by Philippe Albaric, adapted by Christophe Pitoiset