Who knows what impels a composer of 80 to come out of a six-year retirement and write one last opera. Maybe he's bored, wants to show he still has what it takes, needs to get back in the game one last time. But when that final opera is a comic masterpiece, full of lightness, energy and humour, we feel the composer is making an important statement about the world, and his vision of it.
Giuseppe Verdi is that composer and Falstaff is the opera, his last, completed in 1893, just spitting distance from the twentieth century. And, on Friday night, Canadian director Robert Carsen and a star-studded Canadian Opera Company captured the wit, drive, but also depth of this masterpiece with great aplomb.
Falstaff is unlike any other Verdi opera. The master of the broad melody and dramatic gesture, the man who stated that the purpose of the theatre was to be full, abandoned his standard technique in Falstaff for a beautifully composed, virtually aria-free opera, which instead offers dozens, hundreds of superb musical moments, brief, tantalizing – an opera where the musical texture provides the subtlety and depth of the piece. It is as though at the very end of his life, Verdi said "Enough. I'm writing this one for me"
Falstaff has a brilliant libretto by Arrigo Boito that blends together the three times William Shakespeare returned in his plays to illuminate one of his favourite creations, Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff's simultaneous and simultaneously unsuccessful wooing of two Merry Wives of Windsor, Alice Ford and Meg Page, provide the basic comic engine for Falstaff, but it is the constant shifting of characters in the opera, who now sing in duets, now trios, now in double quartets, now choruses, that makes the piece come musically alive.
Director Robert Carsen has set himself a quite a task in this updated production of Falstaff, set in the 1950s. Carsen has set the piece moving at the pace and energy level of a comic film, not always easy within the confines of a seemingly cavernous operatic stage. And indeed, some of that energy lags in the first few scenes of the production. But by the time Act 2 ends in a Keystone-cops style finale, set in the gorgeous, yellow-cabineted kitchen of Mistress Ford, and Act 3 opens on a beautifully starlit stage, full of shadow and fairy dust, the slight laboriousness of those opening scenes has long been left behind. The entire third act, which eventually ends in a celebration of reconciliation between Sir John and his enemies and tormentors, reminds us that at its best, comedy is not just a laugh-a minute engine of mistaken identity and missed opportunity, but a revelation of the highest order. At its best, Falstaff takes the rough edges of humour and creates blazing sparks of illumination when they are struck together.
Carsen's cast is first-rate through and through. Colin Ainsworth and Robert Gleadow make an amiable Bardolfo and Pistol. Lyne Fortin and Lauren Segal were lovely and sang beautifully as the Mistresses Page and Ford. But Marie-Nicole Lemieux went the extra mile as Mistress Quickly, adding a broad and energetic humour to her gorgeous voice. Russell Braun was a believably outraged Ford, bringing real fire and anger to his characterization. Simone Osborne shone and her voice soared as Nannetta, the Ford's daughter, as she was given one of the few real arias in the work, a third-act beauty which she delivered with grace and care. Frédéric Antoun was steady and solid as her lover, Fenton.
But in many ways, it was Gerald Finley's night at the COC, in the title role. Finley is one of those world-class Canadian opera stars, in demand everywhere, celebrated everywhere, who hadn't appeared in Toronto since the Blue Jays last won the World Series. And although his Sir John is often set in musical conversation with other characters in the opera, Finley provided a superb, burnished voice, a fine comic presence and a believable characterization all rolled into one all evening. The latter is especially important. We must believe in Sir John for Falstaff to work. Yes, he is vain; yes, he is a buffoon. But if we don't see him as a sympathetic character nonetheless, Falstaff the opera deteriorates into farce and shtick, rather than an expression of love and tender humanity.
Falstaff in many ways is about Verdi, and about his very late-in-career musical exploration, which had his orchestra sound sometimes like Wagner, sometimes like Mendelssohn, sometimes like Debussy. (The Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun was written just a year after Falstaff). Once again, Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra wrung full musical value out of this deep and textured score, providing all the animation the piece requires. This Falstaff is a winner; a fine opening to the COC's celebratory 2014 season.