Verdi’s fat scoundrel

By Andrew Tomilson

In 1893, shortly after the release "Falstaff",
which was to become his most celebrated comic opera, Verdi admittedly
reported that "Certain passages are so droll that the music
has often made me laugh while writing it." Over 100 years
later, the Calgary Philharmonic
helped me appreciate Verdi’s claim.

Regarded by some as the pre-eminent late 19th century Italian
opera composer, Verdi completed "Falstaff" when he
was nearly 80 years old. Combining his efforts with librettist
Arrigo Borto, Verdi based his opera on Shakespeare’s play "The
Merry Wives of Windsor". The plot revolves around the fat,
scoundrel knight Sir John Falstaff and his failed attempts to
seduce married women.

The promoters of the Calgary production advertised the production
as a concert version of the opera, which traditionally means
the singers only recite their parts with the orchestra. Nevertheless,
the singers acted out their roles, if only with slight gestures
and stage movement. A minimal use of props and costumes also
served to aid the audience’s imagination. When Falstaff (played
by baritone Allan Monk) wanted to hide from the angry husbands
searching for him in the second act, he concealed his face, with
comic ineptitude, behind a music stand. Similarly, when Nanetta
(soprano Leslie Fagan) assumed the role of Fairy Queen during
the climactic sting operation against Falstaff, she changed from
a red to a white dress. The effects were simple yet dramatic.

Thus, the liberties taken by the production well complimented
the humour inherent in Verdi’s score. The orchestra itself, under
the direction of conductor Hans Graf, did an excellent job of
rendering the mirthful subtlety of the opera’s music.

Verdi employs rapid-fire themes that vanish as soon as we notice
them, and the music is molded to match the concerns and actions
of the characters. For example, while Anne (soprano Linda Miller)
and the other women jilted by Falstaff’ set their first trap,
we hear a plodding from the lower regions of the orchestra, signaling
Falstaff’s approach. "Listen!" Anne harkens, "a
fat person is coming!"

The opera singers skilfully executed their roles. Allan Monk
executed the role of Falstaff with good humour and a strong yet
versatile voice. He showed no signs of tiring during the opening
scene, which is one of the most exhausting in the whole of operatic
repertoire. Linda Miller made a strong impression in the role
of Anne, and we will hopefully hear more of her work in the future.

The only major flaw in the performance was a problem which is
often encountered in concert productions of opera; since the
orchestra performed right next to the singers instead of in an
orchestra pit, the full orchestra occasionally drowned out the
voices, especially in the first scene of the first act. However,
after the first scene, this unfortunate side-effect did not continue,
making the overall cpo production of "Falstaff" immensely

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