It’s always good to get the last laugh – or in Verdi’s case, to get the laugh last.
And if you’re of the age when you think your best work is behind you, take heart: the famed composer was 80 years old when he completed Falstaff, his first and only comedy, and his very last opera.
One of the world’s most beloved works, it is also a comedy with a serious appetite. Taking up a large portion of the stage – literally – is Shakespeare’s beloved Sir John Falstaff, a character whose penchant for stirring up trouble is rivaled only by his immense appetite for the good, if highly caloric, things in life. And when his bar tab grows too long, and his wallet too light, he sends love letters to two married women – even though it’s their husbands’ wallets he craves.
But forget Windsor forest: What better era is there for Falstaff to inhabit than the booming post-war, post-rationing 1950s, where he can rack up grease-spattered room service trolleys and play the cad in the smoking room as he covets wealthy women’s Mad Men-worthy handbags?
Verdi may have never heard the word “formica” or seen a glowing Good Housekeeping kitchen, but Canadian director Robert Carsen’s stylishly modern production of the composer's work – which he likened to a situation comedy, or the world’s first musical – was a solid Royal Opera hit.
“Ambrogio Maestri, in the title role, is a huge man with a big bass-baritone, but he sings with verbal nuance that only an Italian can bring and with subtle lyricism when wooing the women, dressed up in the full scarlet regalia of a master of the hunt,” wrote the Telegraph. “This is a wonderful show. Carsen’s musically-responsive staging, with its witty gags and magical stage pictures, is matched at every turn by the nuanced, quicksilver conducting of Daniele Gatti.”
“Falstaff himself is a miracle, now sweet, now salty, the most revealing lines of the libretto almost tossed into the air,” enthused a critic for The Independent. “Conductor Daniele Gatti conjures a scintillating performance from the orchestra, scissored with sforzandi from the strings, bathed in a sensual glow the staging cannot reproduce.”
Also starring is Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who won raves for her "well-upholstered" performance of Mrs. Quickly.
The one scene stealer you won’t hear in this memorably opera, however, is Rupert – the very real 15-year-old placid Irish draught horse that Falstaff rides into the garden. As Falstaff sings of the restorative powers of wine, Rupert makes his operatic debut and keeps the culinary excesses going by happily munching on hay.
"When they came to the yard for the first visit, he was very confident around Rupert which gave the horse a lot of confidence in him, and they seem to have formed a very close bond very quickly," said trainer Sharon Rafferty about the relationship between Maestri, who had never ridden a horse, and Rupert, who quickly took to his new role as, well, a horse.
"It's not stressful for him him here," said Rafferty. "He comes, he has his hay, he has his carrots, he goes on, he comes off, and it's a nice day."
You'll hear the Royal Opera House production of Verdi's Falstaff on CBC Radio 2's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on Nov. 24.
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