Laura Whalen and Gaétan Laperrière in Calgary Opera’s Falstaff. Photo by Trudie Lee.
February 2, 6, & 8, @012
Well, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that before in an opera! No, I’m not talking about the fact that this was my first experience watching Verdi’s comedic masterpiece, Falstaff. Nor am I referencing the silent scenery changes that had costumed characters schlepping set pieces on an off the stage, although that felt somewhat surprising to me as well. What I’m alluding to is not one, but three instances of bare buttock flashing on the stage in full moon fashion. Hey, this is a comedy after all and while the stunt may have worn out its fun after the second attempt, I give the production credit for bringing a contemporary silliness to this delightfully performed and rhythmically interesting performance.
Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera written at the age of 79, is described as a mash-up of Shakespeare’s iconic comedic, gluttonous and bombastic character from the Henry plays and his comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. But apart from a few bits and details from Falstaff’s complex appearances in Henry IV Parts I and II, the opera is more a riff on the plot and characterization from Shakespeare’s comedic efforts. The tone is playful- Falstaff is a simple comedic character driving the action rather than commenting on it and there’s no gristle to be found in the libretto or orchestration. You come for fun, and fun you get.
The plot is a simple one. In an effort to improve his finances, Falstaff tries to seduce two married ladies, who in turn trick and humiliate him for his deceitful lechery. Make no mistake, Falstaff may have the starring role, but it’s the women who have the upper hand throughout this opera. As does Verdi’s music and Boito’s libretto.
In lieu of an overture, the audience is thrown right into the action with music that seems both simple and intricate at once. This is a busy composition that puts great demands on the performers as they banter quickly back and forth and layer call and response over one another. Conductor Robert Dean kept the pace lively and tight, enabling smooth pick-ups and good rapport with the action onstage.
All eyes were on the costumed-made rotund Gaétan Laperrière as Falstaff in this, his final performance before retirement. Laperrrière’s well controlled Baritone easily found the humour in the notes as did his deliciously arrogant and amusingly ridiculous stage delivery of the action. Standing out with her natural acting ability and energetic voice, Soprano Laura Whalen was immensely entertaining as Alice Ford, the would be married suitor who hatches the plot to teach Falstaff a lesson. However it was Soprano Eve-Lyn De La Haye as Nannetta, Alice’s daughter who is in love with a suitor undesirable to her father, who hit the spot for me. Her liquid-clear fragrant and intensely sweet voice in both a duet and a solo piece left me with shivers and a desire to hear more from this talented young performer.
Set by John Conklin’s contemporary designs yet retaining the era’s proper dress, the opera felt fresh without the ‘trying too hard to be hip’ trap that many modern productions fall into. The exuberant sense of silliness was allowed to shine in Michael Cavanaugh’s staging which demanded and received ease of space and place from the performers. The audience is not told to laugh in this production; instead it flows naturally from the elegant action onstage.
Falstaff may not have the emotional intensity or memorable melodies of Verdi’s other works, but for pure silly fun, this production is a wonderful way to chase the winter blues away.
For the girls –So often the female roles in opera are subservient victims with no real control over the narrative. Not so in this one. Verdi may have been first to introduce the world to girl power with this one. SEE IT
For the guys –Girl power does not mean anti-male. Especially when the men are so funny. Think Judd Apatow meets classical music and singing. SEE IT
For the opera newbie – With its humor, simple plot and wonderful performances, this is a great opera to sink your teeth into. SEE IT
For the seasoned opera buff – Lapierrière deserves your respectful adieu with his wonderful performance and Verdi’s complex demands of both the orchestra and performers are very worthy of attention. SEE IT