Last night the War Memorial Opera House saw the opening night performance by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) of their new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. After the success of Otello, Arrigo Boito again collaborated with Verdi to provide another libretto based on William Shakespeare, this time drawing primarily on The Merry Wives of Windsor but with a passing out-of-context nod to The First Part of Henry the Fourth. The production was staged by Oliver Tambosi and is owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
While Otello tended to follow its Shakespearean source both faithfully and convincingly, Falstaff is a more independent narrative, inspired by Shakespeare but far from slavishly beholden to him. The number of characters is stripped down to Falstaff’s plan to woo the wives of two prosperous Windsor men to build up his own finances and to the romantic intentions of the daughter of one of those families. In this context it is important to note that Falstaff’s name never figures in the title of any of Shakespeare’s plays. If we treat the title as significant, than the primary source for Falstaff is a play about those two wives; and, as is the case with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, it is a play in which the women are smarter than the men and always end up getting their way. Indeed, while the daughter may have been written into the script to provide Shakespeare’s audience with a romantic interlude, we would do better to think of her as being schooled in cleverness by her elders.
This did not prevent Verdi from having Falstaff dominate in his opera. When he is not on stage, he is in everyone else’s minds; and last night Bryn Terfel endowed this character with the commanding presence that Verdi expected of him. Nevertheless, it is also important to note Tambosi’s awareness of the narrative significance of the major female roles. Meredith Arwady, as the elder Dame Quickly (not quite the same character that Shakespeare had conceived), was just as commanding; and her chemistry with Terfel was magical in every scene in which they had to play off each other. Of the two wives, Ainhoa Arteta was the more creative Alice Ford. She prevails not only over Falstaff but also over her husband (Fabio Capitanucci) for both suspecting her of dalliance without reason and for trying to marry their daughter Nannetta (Heidi Stober) off to an aging physician rather than to Fenton (Francesco Demuro), who is far more suited to her. In this respect the other wife, Meg Page (Renée Rapier), is primarily a “partner in crime;” but is just as committed to teaching Falstaff a lesson.
For those who like to focus on the music, Falstaff tends to be regarded as Verdi’s most interesting score. It is far richer in counterpoint than any of his other operas; and, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of technical skill, I will take Falstaff over his setting of the Requiem any day. The opera is most frequently celebrated for the elaborate fugal setting of its conclusion, “Tutto nel monde è burla” (everything in the world is a jest), in which every character is given an independent voice. However, just as impressive is the second scene of the first act, in which the plotting of the Windsor wives is complemented by similar plotting among the men. Each group has its own musical rhetoric, rich in counterpoint; and, at the end of the scene, Verdi has both groups on the stage singing their different parts at the same time. This does not quite rise to the delightful chaos of the street riot in the second act of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but it has no shortage of its own merits.
Last night, under the baton of Music Director Nicola Luisotti, one could also appreciate Verdi’s imaginative approach to instrumentation. There is a tendency to believe that in opera, particularly from the nineteenth century, the vocal work is all that matters. However, by the time he got to Falstaff, Verdi were ready to use orchestral coloration to enhance character development, rather than for mere sound effects and grand expressions of emotion. Luisotti appreciated how much was really happening in the pit and did an admirable job of making sure that those of us on audience side shared his appreciation.
As I observed in my preview article, this is SFO’s major production to honor Verdi’s 200th birthday (which is being celebrated around the world either today or tomorrow). Between the many merits of Verdi’s score, the impressive array of vocalists, Tambosi’s staging, and Luisotti’s conducting, they could not have made a better choice. Seven performances remain on October 11 at 8 p.m., October 15 at 7:30 p.m., October 20 at 2 p.m., October 24 at 7:30 p.m., October 27 at 2 p.m., October 30 at 7:30 p.m., and November 2 at 8 p.m.