17 May 2012

"All the world's a stage..."

One of the perks of working for the local paper is getting to see things we might otherwise miss...like the opera.  Ever since I saw the scene in Little Women (the original motion picture) where Jo comes back from the opera enraptured by the music and the emotion of it all, I've meant to experience it first hand.  I have a few CDs of famous tenors, my favorite voice, but couldn't tell you Wagner from Verdi if you paid me.  Until now.  
So you don't know Fenton from a fugue, Verdi from a villain, or Alice Ford from an aria? No matter, Falstaff is a great opera for novices or aficionados alike!  As of last Thursday, I might be able to identify some key songs from this opera, one of Verdi's most beloved, because I got to see the dress rehearsal by virtue of a press pass.  If you think trying to live daily life here in French is tricky, this takes it a step farther.  Imagine attempting to follow a zany plot line sung in Italian, with the the "translation" in French flashing overhead on a projection screen, while the orchestra vibrates the floorboards from the orchestra pit almost under your feet.  

Something felt vaguely familiar about the personalities and the plot.  I had a guess while in the still theater, but did my homework afterwards.  Keep reading, for the QCT article, and you'll discover as I did, just why opera might be more familiar to you than you realize - even if you're seeing it for the first time.

The lighting was abysmal for photography (without a multi-zillion dollar lens), and flashes were prohibited except during intermission and the curtain call.  Therefore, if you want to see Falstaff, you better do so first-hand.

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Falstaff dress rehearsal - a fresh look at a classic opera
If you were to see Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved final opera, for the first time without any background information or previous exposure to opera, you might still find it familiar. This was certainly the case during the May 10 dress rehearsal, presented at the Grand Théâtre. The enthusiastic audience was largely comprised of high school and CEGEP students. One student was overheard to remark, “This reminds me of Shakespeare...” — a well-founded comment by an astute youth.

The word opera in Latin and Italian is the plural form of opus. It means ‘the works’, and was developed in the late 1500s in Italy as a synthesis of the arts, including music, drama, and dance. Some historians suggest that opera owes its origins to the Italian Renaissance interest in reviving the tradition of Greek theatre. It quickly gained popularity throughout Europe and today, opera is a truly global art form with an ever-expanding audience, thanks to technological advances. 

Falstaff is a prime example of the bel canto genre, and is still a popular opera 119 years after its début performance in Milan. Verdi continues to symbolize to many critics the peak of operatic achievement in artistic expression. At age 80, in a comic flourish, Verdi did just what that observant student thought. In collaboration with the librettist Arrigio Boito, he exercised liberal artistic license on two Shakespearean dramas, Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the result was the perpetual favorite, Falstaff.

It is possible some in the audience were not sufficiently familiar with Shakespeare or operatic tradition to notice that Verdi had shuffled some characters’ roles and reduced the cast considerably. More importantly, he wrote the score to a musical masterpiece - densely filled with complex music, almost to the point of being overwhelming.

However, in light of Verdi’s source of inspiration, the English character names woven into the Italian lyrics seem less of a theatrical oxymoron. Even a casual student will notice the similarity to Shakespeare — the typically ribald jokes, absurd twists of plot, and the slightly slapstick nature of many scenes. The key character, Sir John Falstaff of Windsor, is a corpulent, greedy, retired knight. The plot centers on his ill-fated schemes to seduce a wealthy married woman, any one will do, in order to finance his opulent lifestyle. 

To this end, he sends identical love letters to two happily married local women — the mistresses Alice Ford and Meg Page.  When the women compare notes, they are incensed and vow to get even. Meanwhile, Falstaff’s badly treated personal servants, Bardolfo and Pistola, alert Mr. Ford of their employer’s machinations. Ford also decides to punish Falstaff, though for comedy’s sake neither husband nor wife are aware of their shared desire for revenge. Predictably, a true-love thread runs through the tale of Falstaff’s loveless wooing gone awry. Ford’s daughter Nannetta shares a secret love with a young gentleman, Fenton. Equally predictably, their love is threatened by Ford’s intention to have Nannetta marry the French Dr. Caïus. 

Ultimately, Falstaff’s efforts to cuckold his neighbours go terribly awry, and he becomes the target of a masquerade orchestrated to scare him out of his wits and humiliate him for his shameful intentions. In the final scene, he lies face down and trembling on the ground, ridiculously dressed with horns on his head, while the community, dressed as fairies, elves and spirits of the forest, dance and sing about him. After being soundly abused, kicked and beaten, Falstaff discovers it is all a grand joke at his expense. 

Ford seizes the opportunity to declare that everyone gathered will stand witness to the marriage of his daughter and the doctor. An anonymous couple, heavily veiled, asks to be married at the same time. After Ford pronounces the couples legally wed, Dr. Caïus discovers he’s been duped — his “bride” is Pistola, and the veiled couple are the happy lovers Fenton and Nannetta. The opera’s grand finale, a masterful fugue, features Falstaff ribbing Ford, who has also been made to look a fool. 

The audience at the dress rehearsal followed the tradition of Shakespeare’s outspoken spectators, laughing and gasping freely, taking their cues from the French translation running simultaneously above the production, and stood cheering wildly when the curtain dropped. Verdi’s closing lines are inspired by yet another bit of Shakespeare’s wit. The well-known line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It), is transformed into Falstaff’s final proclamation about the state of humanity – “All the world’s a joke and man is born clown.” 

The principals make a bow in acknowledgement of the orchestra,
which literally provides the foundation for this well-known opera.
There are still tickets available for the performances on Thursday, May 17 and Saturday, May 19 at 8:00 p.m. Contact the Opéra de Québec at 877-643-8131 or 418-529-0688.

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