10 November 2013

Falstaff: The Keystone…Merry Wives of Windsor

I have to confess that I was a little worried about how I would feel about this opera after the first scene of the first act. The music was not all that catchy or pleasant, the set not particularly exciting, the character certainly not at all sympathetic. By the end, however, I had listened to treats for the ears, laughed out loud much more than once, and even gasped at the beauty of some of the later sets. I strode into the fresh clean fall air a satisfied opera-goer once again.
I love telling the stories of the operas I see, and this one is no exception. The pompous Falstaff, a knight of apparently insufficient means, plots how to lay his hands on more resources, and possibly some pleasant female company along the way. He is full of his own importance and supremely confident in his allure — much more confident than anyone else is with the same subject. He sets his eyes on not one, but two married women of means as his tickets to providing himself with ample resources for his debauched life. He pens two letters professing his affection, one to each of the two women with very little creativity, substituting names, but repeating the rest of the content. The friends who ride his coattails refuse to serve as messengers and the letters are sent by page.

The two women are good friends, and it doesn’t take long for them to compare letters, mock their would-be suitor, and cook up a ruse to embarrass him in his clumsy self-assurance. Mrs. Ford arranges for another friend, Mrs. Quickly, to carry to Falstaff the news that she is indeed interested, and that her husband is predictable absent daily between 2 and 3 o’clock. Falstaff sets about preparing himself to go courting the married Mrs. Ford.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ford has also got wind of Falstaff’s intentions and is determined to catch Falstaff (and his wife!) in their tryst. He arranges to have himself introduced to Falstaff under an assumed name and takes with him a gift of wine, which the intemperate Falstaff accepts with pleasure. He goes on to brag to his new benefactor of his upcoming conquest of Mrs. Ford, much to the well-disguised chagrin of her husband.

There’s a little side plot going on by this point, too. The Fords’ daughter Nannetta has been promised in marriage to the elderly (and wealthy) Dr. Cajus, but she is in love with the young and handsome (and presumably much less wealthy) Fenton. Her father sternly warns her against seeing Fenton, but her mother seems to tolerate her liaison quite well.

We are now inside the Ford home. The ladies’ plot is about to come to fruition and all is arranged. Falstaff arrives to woo Mrs. Ford, who resists coquettishly, and then suddenly her friend Meg (object #2 of Falstaff’s ill-intentioned affection) appears. This is the ladies’ plan: embarrass Falstaff by revealing their reciprocal knowledge of his multiple advances. No time to dwell on that, however, as Mr. Ford returns home unexpectedly with a whole posse of men, determined to catch his wife and Falstaff in what he thinks is a real affair. Falstaff at first hides behind a screen, then in the clothes hamper. Nannetta and Fenton take up residence behind the screen, where their audible kissing draws the attention of Ford and his men, who think it is Falstaff and Mrs. Ford. The reveal is not necessarily more pleasant for Mr. Ford, who again threatens his daughter to avoid the company of Fenton, as she is promised to the doctor. As they search more rooms in the Ford home, the ladies summon servants to empty the contents of the laundry hamper out the window into the river below.

We cut to a bitter Falstaff trying to dry himself off, and Mrs. Quickly arrives to reassure him of Mrs. Ford’s affection and to arrange a midnight tryst in the park, near a tree named for the Black Huntsman. After much convincing, Falstaff agrees to go, dressed as the huntsman.

More preparations are underway on the other side of this latest ruse, however, with the preparation of costumes to make some of the party look like various spirits and fairies to give Falstaff a good fright. But wait! Yet more deceit, as Mr. Ford, determined to put an end to Nannetta’s wanderings, plans to marry her to the doctor while they are in costume in the park at midnight. Mrs. Ford, however, hatches her own plot with her friends to allow her daughter to marry young Fenton, arranging for him to wear the same monk costume that the doctor will be wearing, and arranging a surprising decoy to be dressed as yet another fairy queen (the costume of her daughter).

Mrs. Ford meets Falstaff, but quickly runs off when she hears the sounds of the approaching “fairies”. Falstaff hunkers down under the tree, determined to avoid looking the fairies in the eye. His silly fear is revealed, as are his impure intentions, and Falstaff manages to fabricate a claim to fame in all of this as, in his words, the rest of them would not seem half as clever were he not on the scene. Hmmm. He might want to rethink that line of reasoning.

Ford sets about carrying out his own plan. He starts to marry the doctor and the fairy queen, when another couple emerges in costume, also wishing to be married. Mr. Ford obliges, only to discover that he has married his daughter to Fenton and the doctor to…Bardolfo, one of Falstaff’s [male] servants! [#TeamBardolfo I was compelled to tweet at this point, or as close to this point as good manners would allow.] Falstaff is happy to step back in, proclaiming that everything in the world is but a jest.

Jean-Michel Richer plays Bardolfo. Where is my doctor disguise?

Well, I do go on about the twisting and turning plot, don’t I?! Shall I get to what ought to be the substance of a review? There was some excellent singing on stage, and more than a little bit of well-acted slapstick humour as well. I thought it got off to a slow start, as I didn’t really enjoy the songs of the first scene, and the slapstick was kind of understated, which is surely contraindicated. There is not much the company could do about the music — that’s Verdi’s fault — and I’m happy to be able to say that it got better, and quickly (yes, a reference to the character, too). The women and the men developing their respective plots to expose Falstaff gave us some lovely and upbeat tunes and chorus singing, which I always enjoy. Then when Mrs. Quickly went to Falstaff’s apartment to communicate Mrs. Ford’s "interest” in him, the slapstick qualities truly emerged with great aplomb. The husband’s posse’s search of the house looked like a scene directly out of the Keystone Cops, as they rushed from room to room, barely missing the object of their pursuit. The music and the singing from then on was quite interesting and enjoyable.

A special note for the sets. I often gauge my appreciation of the sets by the level of my desire to live within them. Not so much this time. The scenes in Falstaff’s apartment were kind of disappointing, and these elements were rearranged and added to for the interior of the Ford home. The addition of a staircase and a couple of pieces of furniture did improve it a bit. At the beginning of Act III — Falstaff’s drying off after his river adventure — I was blown away by a very simple, but beautiful and effective set. A series of wooden fences that offered places to hide behind and/or peek over, with a richly lit background. Very lovely. And then when Scene II of Act III began, I think I actually gasped aloud at the beauty of the solitary and majestic oak tree, again with only a richly lit screen in the back: perfect for the scene in the park at midnight.

It must be a testament to the production that a two-and-a-half hour opera with a single intermission (plus a couple of short pauses) at the end of a long day left me feeling invigorated, not tired, and my friend and I strode happily into the night to get to our respective homes. It’s a win, for sure, and on the level of the plot, I am always glad to see pompous fools called to account for their behaviour.

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