Falstaff dress rehearsal — a fresh look at a classic opera

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Photo: Photo by Bethann G. Merkle

Curtain call with the cast of Falstaff : Jeremy Blossey (Bardolfo), Marie-Josée Lord (Meg Page), Pascale Beaudin (Nannetta), Antonio Figueroa (Fenton), Gaétan Laperrière (Sir John Falstaff), Giuseppe Grazioli (conductor), Lyne Fortin (Alice Ford), Jacques Leblanc (director), Jean-François Lapointe (Ford), Benoît Boutet (Dr. Caïus), Sonia Racine (Mrs. Quickly) and Taras Kulish (Pistola).

If you were to see Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi's beloved final opera, for the first time without any background information or previous exposure to opera, you might still find it familiar. This was certainly the case during the May 10 dress rehearsal, presented at the Grand Théâtre. The enthusiastic audience was largely comprised of high school and CEGEP students. One student was overheard to remark, "This reminds me of Shakespeare..." - a well-founded comment by an astute youth.

The word opera in Latin and Italian is the plural form of opus. It means ‘the works', and was developed in the late 1500s in Italy as a synthesis of the arts, including music, drama, and dance. Some historians suggest that opera owes its origins to the Italian Renaissance interest in reviving the tradition of Greek theatre. It quickly gained popularity throughout Europe and today, opera is a truly global art form with an ever-expanding audience, thanks to technological advances.

Falstaff is a prime example of the bel canto genre, and is still a popular opera 119 years after its début performance in Milan. Verdi continues to symbolize to many critics the peak of operatic achievement in artistic expression. At age 80, in a comic flourish, Verdi did just what that observant student thought. In collaboration with the librettist Arrigio Boito, he exercised liberal artistic license on two Shakespearean dramas, Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the result was the perpetual favourite, Falstaff.

Possibly many in the audience were not sufficiently familiar with Shakespeare or operatic tradition to notice that Verdi had shuffled some characters' roles and reduced the cast considerably. More importantly, he wrote the score to this musical masterpiece, densely filled with complex music, almost to the point of being overwhelming.

However, in light of Verdi's source of inspiration, the English character names woven into the Italian lyrics seem less of a theatrical oxymoron. Even a casual student will notice the similarity to Shakespeare - the typically ribald jokes, absurd twists of plot, and the slightly slapstick nature of many scenes. The key character, Sir John Falstaff of Windsor, is a corpulent, greedy, retired knight. The plot centres on his ill-fated schemes to seduce a wealthy married woman, any one will do, in order to finance his opulent lifestyle.

To this end, he sends identical love letters to two happily married local women - the mistresses Alice Ford and Meg Page. But when the women compare notes, they are incensed and vow to get even. Meanwhile, Falstaff's badly treated personal servants, Bardolfo and Pistola, alert Ford of their employer's machinations. Ford also decides to punish Falstaff though, for comedy's sake, neither husband nor wife is aware of their shared desire for revenge. Predictably, a true-love thread runs through the tale of Falstaff's loveless wooing gone awry. Ford's daughter Nannetta shares a secret love with a young gentleman, Fenton. Equally predictably, their love is threatened by Ford's intention to have Nannetta marry the French Dr. Caïus.

Ultimately, Falstaff's efforts to cuckold his neighbours go terribly awry, and he becomes the target of a masquerade orchestrated to scare him out of his wits and humiliate him for his shameful intentions. In the final scene, he lies face down and trembling on the ground, ridiculously dressed with horns on his head, while the community, dressed as fairies, elves and spirits of the forest, dance and sing about him. After being soundly abused, kicked and beaten, Falstaff discovers it is all a grand joke at his expense.

Ford seizes the opportunity to declare that everyone gathered will stand witness to the marriage of his daughter and the doctor. An anonymous couple, heavily veiled, asks to be married at the same time. After Ford pronounces the couples legally wed, Dr. Caïus discovers he's been duped - his "bride" is Pistola, and the veiled couple are the happy lovers Fenton and Nannetta. The opera's grand finale, a masterful fugue, features Falstaff ribbing Ford, who has also been made to look a fool.

The audience at the dress rehearsal followed the tradition of Shakespeare's outspoken spectators, laughing and gasping freely, taking their cues from the French translation running simultaneously above the production, and stood cheering wildly when the curtain dropped.

Verdi's closing lines are inspired by yet another bit of Shakespeare's wit. The well-known line, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" (As You Like It), is transformed into Falstaff's final proclamation about the state of humanity - "All the world's a joke and man is born clown."

There are still tickets available for the performances on Thursday, May 17 and Saturday, May 19 at 8:00 p.m. Contact the Opéra de Québec at 877-643-8131 or 418-529-0688.