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William Shakespeare is revered throughout the world, but how on earth do you improve on the master? In fact, can you improve on the master?
In this case, yes, says Simon Phillips, director of Opera Australia’s famous production of Verdi’s Falstaff. The play on which Falstaff is based, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, is considered one of his weaker comedies, but in the hands of Verdi, it becomes a real gem.
“It’s sensationally put together,” says Phillips. “It’s an incredibly skilful distillation of the slightly unwieldy farce Shakespeare wrote. Verdi uses great economy and pillages the Henry plays to give Falstaff extra depth. As a piece of comic writing, it is nearly faultless.”
Don’t forget: he who laughs last, laughs longest.
Verdi wrote Falstaff at the ripe old age of 77, and he brought to it a lifetime of stagecraft and a profound love of Shakespeare. He had already taken inspiration from Macbeth and Otello, and toyed with the idea of creating an opera based on King Lear, but he had never tried Shakespearean comedy. It was to be his final masterpiece.
Unusually for Verdi, the music drives the action along scarcely pausing for arias, but instead binding the words and music together in a tight-knit web.
“There’s no fat on the bone,” says Phillips. “It’s just effortless music-making.”
For a great piece of comic writing, you need a great comedian, and this production has one in Warwick Fyfe. He’s won fans as Mozart’s soft-hearted Papageno and guffaws as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, but Falstaff is his biggest challenge yet. Not least because he has to wear a fat suit and calf-enhancers, plus a full face of hair to look the part.
“Whenever they get the glue pot out I start cringing,” moans Fyfe of the lengthy transformation, in hair and make-up, from a forty-something Australian to an elderly, ruddy-nosed knight.
But it’s worth it when he appears on stage in all his grubby magnificence, ready to revel in Verdi’s glorious score. The jokes fly, the fairies dance and the music captures the emotions that words alone miss. Shakespeare would have loved it.
An Opera Conference co-production.
|Set Designer||Iain Aitken|
|Costume Designer||Tracy Grant Lord|
|Lighting Designer||Nick Schlieper|
|Alice Ford||Amelia Farrugia|
|Mistress Quickly||Dominica Matthews|
|Meg Page||Jacqueline Dark|
|Dr Caius||Graeme Macfarlane|
Running time: approx two hours and fifty minutes including two twenty-minute intervals.
Performed in Italian with English subtitles.
“Warwick Fyfe shines as Falstaff”
Time Out Sydney
“a mellow, fruitful and hugely enjoyable production”