Over when the fat man sings
When Giuseppe Verdi met with librettist Arrigo Boito in 1890, he was in some doubt as to whether his advancing years would give him sufficient time to complete a new project, but sworn to secrecy, they worked together to create Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, which he completed at the grand old age of 79. The result is an opera where Verdi’s playful orchestration rarely lets up, and his masterful, musical and dramatic talents are encapsulated into one rabble-rousing performance.
After decades of operatic masterpieces such as Rigoletto, La Traviata and Aida, the incredibly popular Verdi was keen to compose a comedy purely for his own pleasure, and the choice fell upon Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It took a couple of years to pen, with Verdi’s muse being somewhat inconsistent during the on-off scoring of ‘The Big Belly’, as Falstaff was called before its completion.
Writing to Boito in June 1891, he confessed: “The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart. I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straightjacket.”
Falstaff had its première at the legendary La Scala in Milan in February 1893 to huge critical acclaim, and it is still frequently performed at opera houses around the world. To celebrate Verdi’s 200th birthday, the Royal Opera House is staging ten performances of the refined, yet undeniably joyous comedic romp that is Falstaff, in the sumptuous surroundings of Maersk’s gift to Copenhagen, the Royal Opera House. Indeed, the AP Møller Fund has made this production possible with a special donation.
The prolific and versatile stage director Peter Langdal returns to the Royal Danish Theatre to try his hand. Langdal has a well-deserved reputation for breathing new life into old classics and it will be fascinating to see what he has up his sleeve for the interpretation of the portly, conceited and cowardly braggart, Sir John Falstaff. The set has been created by English set designer Ashley Martin-Davis in the spirit, if not quite the appearance of the original Globe Theatre.
Waving the baton is young British star conductor Leo Hussain, and on stage the audience will be treated to a strong cast, which features the globetrotting American baritone Donnie Ray Albert making his debut at the Royal Danish Theatre in the title role. Perhaps best known for his epic performances as Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the Grammy-winning singer has been performing for more than 35 years. He will be joined onstage by the celebrated Italian baritone Lucio Gallo in the role of Ford, and some of the very best ensemble singers from the Royal Danish Opera including Gisela Stille, Susanne Resmark, Elisabeth Jansson and Tuva Semmingsen. These irrepressible and mischievous wives of Windsor promise to lead the unsuspecting Falstaff a very merry dance indeed.
Falstaff is a fast-paced bawdy romp with dark undertones. The butt of the humour is the pot-bellied title character – that “bold and skilled knight”, as he vainly and inaccurately describes himself. Falstaff’s incredibly ambitious and ridiculous masterplan to seduce two unwitting Windsor wives and con them out of their money falls hilariously flat on its face. The merrymaking women see through his treacherous schemes and proceed to make a complete and utter fool out of the errant knight. However, the opera ends with a repentant Falstaff, relieved to find himself not alone in being bamboozled, proclaiming in a rousing fugue, sung by the entire company: “Tutto nel mondo è burla… Tutti gabbati!” (“All the world is folly and all are figures of fun.”)
It is the perfect climax to the opera and echoes the sentiments of Boito in a letter when Verdi was having his doubts, especially after the massive success of his previous opera, the melodramatic Othello: “There’s only one way to finish better than with Othello and that is to finish triumphantly with Falstaff. After having sounded all the shrieks and groans of the human heart, to finish with a mighty burst of laughter – now that is how to astonish the world.”
There may not be the reported one-hour standing ovation that the première in 1893 received, but this is an eagerly-awaited top-notch production that will hopefully provide a belly laugh or two along the way.
Store Scene, Ekvipagemestervej 10, Cph K ; performances at 20:00 (unless stated) on Sat (19:30), Wed (19:30), Oct 27 (15:00), Oct 30, Nov 2 (19:30), Nov 6, Nov 9, Nov 13, Nov 16; tickets 895-125kr; www.kglteater.dk; duration: 160 mins with one interval; sung in Italian with Danish supertitles