Falstaff: Verdi’s brilliant comedy opens on Norton stage tonight

Katie McLean | Staff PhotographerKevin Glavin plays Sir John Falstaff, a character who is perceived by the town as being “quite an ass,” in Chautauqua Opera’s Falstaff, opening at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Norton Hall.

Katie McLean | Staff Photographer

Kevin Glavin plays Sir John Falstaff, a character who is perceived by the town as being “quite an ass,” in Chautauqua Opera’s Falstaff, opening at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Norton Hall.


“All in the world’s mere folly; man is born to be jolly,” basso buffo Kevin Glavin said, reminding audiences of the lesson to be learned through uproarious laughter in tonight’s production of Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi’s comedic masterpiece, by the Chautauqua Opera Company.

Falstaff, the final opera in Verdi’s long and distinguished career, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. in Norton Hall and again at 7:30 p.m. on Monday. Students of Chautauqua Opera’s Young Artist Program will provide the chorus for the show.

Composed when the Italian master was 79 years old, Falstaff is the second comedy in Verdi’s repertory, which consists mostly of dramatic pieces. His first comedy, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), was commissioned at the beginning of his career, shortly before he lost his wife and children. Un giorno became known as the failure that prevented Verdi from composing any comedic operas until the end of his life.

“Life is easy; comedy is hard,” said Jay Lesenger, Chautauqua Opera general/artistic director, describing the process of perfecting the art comedy within the conventions of his craft.

Falstaff was Verdi’s first successful comedy, and it is considered one of the most notable manifestations of the genre. The libretto was written by Arrigo Boito (a highly successful composer in his own right), who based the storyline largely on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and also on scenes from the playwright’s Henry IV.

“Boito was one of the great composers and literary figures of his generation,” said James Meena, Falstaff’s conductor. “He had no qualms being second fiddle to Verdi. What you end up with is an opera that is brilliant on every level. Dramatically … it’s brilliant. Musically, it’s extraordinary.”

Boito’s representation of Falstaff is hardly different from Shakespeare’s.

“He’s funny,” said Kevin Glavin, who play’s the opera’s title character, “but the funny with him is a sad funny. He was a knight when he was younger, but he sort of let himself go. He has no money, he’s very fat, he runs around with a couple of drunks all the time and orders them around. He still thinks he is a handsome knight…. he talks about his belly as his kingdom.”

Falstaff’s inflated self-conception masks any suspicions of his lowered social status. Believing himself to be as handsome as he was in his youth, he sends identical love letters to the wealthy Mistresses Meg Page (Ellen PutneyMoore) and Alice Ford (Amy Burton).

The two women send Mistress Quickly (Jennifer Roderer) to Falstaff, to trick him into believing they are interested in his immodest proposals.

At one point, Mistress Ford’s husband, Ford (played by baritone Michael Chioldi) becomes so convinced of his wife’s infidelity that he sinks into a gut-wrenching aria, (È sogno o realtà? — “Is it a dream or reality?”), revealing the raw wound that humor so ably scabs.

Here, Ford must grapple with the innateness of irreality: If a wealthy man like Ford can be undermined by the village idiot, then the vanity of humankind is exposed in a moment that brings deep dramatic tension to this comedy.

It is in the third act, following Ford’s aria, that Falstaff becomes most human, a trend that correlates with the village’s increasing distaste for his misadventures.

Of course, the opera’s tone should not be confused with Peter Grimes, which also concerns itself with a deviant outcast in a community of antagonists. Falstaff should certainly provide comic contrast and relief to the tension of Peter Grimes.

“It’s such a joyful piece,” Jay Lesenger said. “It’s just a joyful piece. It’s one of the great comedies in the opera world. It’s one of the great comedies everywhere… It’s a masterpiece.”

While the singers are guided by the in-depth details within the script, the craft of comedy requires attention to detail above and beyond the flourishes of its dramatic counterpart.

“It has to very precisely timed,” Burton said. “If the timing is slightly off in a tragedy, the whole thing doesn’t necessarily fall apart the way that comedy can. It feels almost scientific to get the comedy timing exactly right.”

Despite the depth of attention paid to detail, the tone in rehearsal is the complete opposite of Peter Grimes. There is joking around, conviviality and light-hearted laughter. The script itself is far lighter than its counterpart this season at Chautauqua Opera.

“Bring your kids,” Jay Lesenger said. “It’s gonna be a fun show.”

Lesenger had never done Peter Grimes before this season’s performance, but this will be his sixth production of Falstaff.  His familiarity with the piece will serve him well, as the company has a comparable amount of time to prepare for this production as they did with Peter Grimes. The swelling, dramatic largesse of the arias and duets in Peter Grimes will be opposed in brevity by Falstaff’s effervescent, musical laughter, which will lighten hearts and induce foolish grinning across the crowd.

In this production, master-comedian Glavin will accustom himself to portraying a brand-new character, alongside the Chautauqua Opera’s Young Artists and his fellow professionals, many of whom have played their roles in this opera many times before.

For example, Burton will be performing as Alice Ford for this third time. She has also played Nanette, Ford’s daughter, who is also complicit in the deceit of Falstaff.

This performance, to be sung in the King’s English, will make the Merry Wives’ deceit come to life in vivid hilarity.