The delicacies of Verdi’s Falstaff in the Berkshires

Tamara Wilson and Sebastian Catana, (Ken Howard Photography)

If a more delicious way to enjoy the opera than during a lively and lively performance of Verdi’s work Falstaff exists, I would be hard-pressed to name it, although other comedic operas reach equally high levels of musical quality, dramatic richness, and a deep understanding of human weaknesses – the Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and a few Donizetti to name a few. But also beautiful and charming (and, especially in the case of Mozart, human) like these operas, none of them move with the mercurial speed of Falstaff from start to finish – so fast, indeed, that Verdi spends almost no time on the tunes, the part that most listeners expect and cherish. The main characters of Falstaff have wonderful, but brief melodic effusions that rise from high jinks before merging again with the lightning-fast energy of the ensemble.

The current production of Falstaff offered by the Berkshire Opera Festival drew cheers and laughter when it premiered on Saturday afternoon. The following mixed qualities made it a memorable event: A splendid cast, singing and acting with total commitment; the active staging of Joshua Major, capturing the varied characteristics of chaste and villainous characters, as well as an athletic and comedic physique not always seen in opera; Brian Garman’s tightly controlled conductor of the orchestra, who had many challenges due to the speed of tempos and his difficult connection between pit and stage; and Cori Ellison’s playful translation for surtitles that made Arrigo Boito’s witty Italian libretto immediately accessible to the public, often capturing lost jokes in the translation that generated genuine laughs – all of these made for one. delicious experience throughout.

The miracle of Verdi’s last opera is that he composed this comedy, his first successful comedy, when he was approaching the age of 80, yet it is so lively that one is tempted to to believe the work of a much younger man, except that at every moment and never music bar testifies to a life of experience in the theater. He had already announced his retirement more than 20 years earlier after finishing Aida. Fortunately, a young composer, the intellectual Arrigo Boito, offered his libretto based on Shakespeare’s “Othello”. Verdi recognized it as the most beautiful libretto he had ever seen and found himself drawn into opera 13 years later. Verdi adored Shakespeare: he had already composed a Macbeth, and for many years he considered a King Lear which never took shape. Corn Otello is very successful and he retires again at 74 years old. Then, six years later, Boito slyly revives his attitude of self-righteousness.

Jeremy Harr, Lucas Levy, Max Jacob Zander (photography Ken Howard)

Falstaff resulted in a three-act opera with two compact and varied scenes per act. (The Berkshire Opera production only took one intermission, at the end of Act II, reducing the length to 160 minutes instead of almost three hours.) The first scene of each act takes place at the Garter Inn, where the fat, aging knight Sir John Falstaff, a man with big appetites and a nearly empty purse, lives. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana makes his Falstaff a boastful and dishonest knight trying to persuade his friends and entourage that he is a worthy and noble character. Yet he desperately needs the income; her plan is to seduce two pretty married women, both of whom hold the key to the family safe. He argues with his companions, Pistol and Bardolph (Jeremy Harr and Max Jacob Zander), who not only do well in their vocal parts, but get involved in missteps and heckles with Falstaff. They refuse to deliver such immoral messages.

The second scene in each act involves the entire cast in the plot, and managing to humiliate the arrogant Falstaff for his boastful pride and planned seductions. First, the two “happy wives” Alice (Tamara Wilson) and Meg (Joanne Evans), who are good friends, show each other the letter each has received, proposing a date. At first they find the letters a joke, but when they realize that both were written by the same man with the exact same wording, they are outraged and decide to teach Falstaff a lesson. In this, they are joined by Alice’s daughter Nanetta (Jasmine Habersham) and their middle-aged friend Mistress Quickly (Alissa Anderson). The four women make a great team of conspirators, filled with good spirits as they hatch their plan.

As the women leave, a group of men burst in, led by Alice’s jealous husband Ford (Thomas Glass) accompanied by Bardolph and Pistol, who inform him of Fastaff’s plan. He is accompanied by old Dr. Caius (Lucas Levy), with whom he plans to marry Nanetta, and young Fenton (Jonas Hacker), whom Nanetta loves. The men’s group is outraged at what Ford thinks his wife is doing, and the women’s group is upset at Falstaff’s behavior as well. As they roam the scene back and forth, Fenton and Nanetta find the opportunity to break away from the old people and engage in a fun, albeit hasty, love game. Boito collected images of the classic love poetry of Italy, taken from the sonnets of Petrarch (which also suits Shakespeare, since these images were taken up entirely by English poets). Love is light and lively like the rest of the opera. When the return of the others forces them to go their separate ways, they briefly serenade each other with two exceptionally beautiful phrases that Verdi brings back with each act. Boito found the two poetic lines that the lovers sing in Boccace Decameron (second day, seventh story): Fenton; sings “Bocca baciata non perde ventura”. (“A mouth which is kissed does not lose its chance”), and Nanetta responds: “Anzi rinnova, come fa la luna” (“On the contrary, it is renewed, like the moon”). These two beautiful lines, and the melody of Verdi, offer a few brief moments of sweet love amid the shenanigans of adults.

Jasmine Habersham and company (photo by Ken Howard)

The rest of the opera involves the women inviting Falstaff on a “summons” with Alice, who plans to scare him by summoning her friends to warn her (as well as the potential lover) that her husband is coming home. . Ford met Falstaff under a pseudonym and surprises him by asking him to seduce Alice Ford. The reason? She’s so pure and chaste that I couldn’t have any luck with her, he said. But you, an accomplished seductress can win it, so I’ll have a chance. Falstaff has been hooked by the conspiracy of the wives, and he assures the stranger that Alice will be in his arms within an hour. Ford is shaken and angry at this news, but he plays along. He interrupts the summons by looking around the house for the intruder. The scene is the craziest and perhaps the funniest in all of opera: the women are prepared for Falstaff, but not for the arrival of the men who chase him. The action continues with the ladies trying to hide Falstaff and the men trying to find him. During the hubbub, Fenton and Nanetta find another place to hide and kiss, but Ford, thinking it is Falstaff, gathers his friends and finds his daughter with the man he doesn’t want to be. ‘she marries. And the act ends when Falstaff, hidden in a bag of dirty laundry (“I’m suffocating!” He shouts as the men search for him) is lifted by Alice’s servants up to the window and thrown in the Thames.

There is yet another act to be done. Ford now believes his wife is being honest and that his jealousy has no reason to exist. But everyone wants to play Falstaff one more trick to get him to change his ways. The plot is still ongoing, but now it is matrimonial. Ford plots to marry Nanetta to Dr. Caius during their prank on Falstaff, while Alice is determined to help Nanetta marry the man she loves. The closing scene is delightfully funny again with Catana’s Falstaff trying to preserve some sense of self-worth, even when he learns he’s been duped again. But Ford, too, is duped by his wife when he realizes that his plan for Nanetta’s marriage has failed. At the end of the day, he says, the whole world is a joke and everyone is a jester. And to spread that message abroad, Verdi ends with a general runaway, first stating that everyone in the story has turned out to be a buffoon, then instructing the audience to include every listener in the melting pot. jesters.

From start to finish we enjoyed endless fun. The two young lovers sang with a sweet purity that raised their antics above the jokes and pranks happening everywhere else. Ford’s anger and fear of being cuckold changed to a violence bordering on violence in the first part, but softened to good humor when Falstaff pointed out his own insanity at the end. Both wives sang and acted with wonderful spirit in their plot against Falstaff. Their friend Mistress Quickly, who took their messages to Falstaff and pulled the powder out of her eyes, proved to be a big participant in the plot. With all my quiet giggles and laughter, and with my mask on, my glasses kept misting up. But whatever. I was in opera-comic heaven and, with its giggles, bursts of laughter and long applause, the audience joined me.

The race continues on Tuesday August 24e , and Friday August 27e, at 7:30 p.m., Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington / Everyone must wear a mask and show ID at the entrance.

Lee Eiseman is the editor of Spy

Falstaff Trapped (Ken Howard Photography)

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