Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, the raucous Falstaff ends with the words, “The whole world is a jest. Man was born a great jester, but the best laugh of all is the last one.”
Directors and opera buffs have, for years, searched for hidden meaning and messages in Verdi’s swan song. Verdi is potentially the most influential operatic composer of all time and his work is so often infused with insightful social commentary. So it stands to reason that people would search the work he completed when he was 80 years old for clues as to the great man’s overall attitude to the world.
Well I hate to disappoint, but it seems that Verdi was just having a lot of fun adapting Shakespeare’s farcical The Merry Wives of Windsor for the operatic stage. That’s not to say it isn’t an absolute masterpiece. The music is stunning and the dramatic structure is perfect. But it’s ultimately just a bit of silliness.
Sure, director Simon Phillips gives it his best shot in the program notes, saying that in his opinion, Falstaff is the story of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. But Phillips is smart enough to realise he’s essentially dealing with a farce and that the laughs must take centre stage.
For the most part, they do, thanks to a cast of Australian opera’s finest letting their hair down and singing and acting up a storm. Warwick Fyfe is a fantastic Falstaff, clearly relishing the chance to play a man who is really just a dirty old sleaze. His singing is every bit as powerful as you could hope and he bounds around the stage with a theatrical presence to match his physical presence in a hilarious fat suit.
Jacqueline Dark and Amelia Farrugia both sing beautifully as Meg Page and Alice Ford, and both have the comedic chops to pull off the wives’ scheming. Kanen Breen and Jud Arthur have some fantastic moments of physical comedy and both know what it means to sing in character. Really, Falstaff is an ensemble piece, and the ensemble here is fantastic.
They have a great, traditional production to work with, with gorgeous costumes from Tracy Grant Lord and a brilliant rotating set by Iain Aitken. The visual impact of the costumes, set and lighting in the final act is stunning.
The slapstick comedy is mostly great, though there are moments where the singers look a little uncomfortable and hesitant to throw each other around the stage. It might be an almost 20-year-old production, but it still looks fresh and exciting.
In the pit, conductor Antony Walker keeps the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra cracking along at a jaunty pace, easily matching the comedic pace onstage.
And it’s important that the music shines as brightly as the comedy, for Verdi is one of the truly great composers, and absolutely worthy of the year-long festival Opera Australia is staging in honour of his 200th birthday. Falstaff is one of his finest, and this stunning production is a fitting way to close the first half of the festival.