Hashtag Feminism has been around a long time but in disguises other than #MeToo. Consider Shakespeare’s take on Sir John Falstaff and the rapscallion’s entanglements with and comeuppance by sharp-witted women.
Giuseppe Verdi composed “Falstaff,” his only comic opera, based on Shakespeare’s character. Middle-aged, ebullient, overweight and full of mischief, Sir John appears as a secondary figure in the Bard’s Henry IV plays and as a major force in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Shakespeare’s buoyant Falstaff is larger than life, and to use today’s terminology, sucks up all the oxygen in every room he’s in.
As Verdi approached 80, the wealthy and successful composer decided to write one more opera, a comedic outlier in a sea of tragedies. Verdi’s “Falstaff” will be livestreamed from the Metropolitan Opera House at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the Vallecito Room of Fort Lewis College’s Student Union.
Verdi referred to Falstaff as “an amusing rogue.” Others have described him as a braggart, swaggert and the prince of rascals. When Shakespeare created this gargantua, he certainly didn’t foresee someone like Harvey Weinstein. But the battle of the sexes found a template in both Shakespeare and Verdi. In both, women take the high road and the Falstaffs of the world get their comeuppance.
Time travel to the 1950s. The Robert Carsen production was seen here in 2013 with a different cast. The concept remains the same, shifting Shakespeare’s plot from 16th-century England to mid-20th century England. Why?
The British director’s idea is that both eras witnessed huge sociopolitical change. In various interviews, Carsen has said the world of Shakespeare’s Henry IV saw the aristocracy starting to crumble with new forces emerging. So, too, England after World War II, when manor houses started turning into tourist attractions. Old money and titles made way for new social dynamics. Liberated women began to make their mark in government and business.
Conducted by Daniele Rustioni, Carson’s fresh interpretation of “Falstaff” now features baritone Michael Volle as Falstaff, Ailyn Pérez as Alice Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page. The young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, will be sung by Hera Hyesang Park and Bogdan Volkov.
An updated version of London’s Garter Inn finds Falstaff shoring up his finances. He plots to convince two wealthy married women he’s an appealing lover. Foolishly, he sends duplicate love letters to the women. Consequently, the not-so-desperate housewives decide to toy with him.
Falstaff’s rooms are always a mess. Alice Ford’s kitchen is a perfect, Betty Crocker setting to cook up a prank. But when a jealous husband intervenes, the scheme goes amiss. Plans unravel. Comic suffering must be endured, not to mention Falstaff’s lament about the wickedness of the world.
WHAT: The MET: Live in HD presents Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff.”
WHEN: 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Vallecito Room Fort Lewis College Student Union, 1000 Rim Drive.
ADMISSION: Individual tickets: adults $28, seniors $25, Met members $24, students $12.
NOTE: Sung in Italian with English subtitles. Running time: two hours, 45 minutes.
A second rendezvous layers the story with a marvelous, magical twist. And by the end of the opera, things sort themselves out. A nice subplot involving the younger generation serves as icing on the proverbial cake.
“Falstaff” is a super-size opera, originally co-produced by the Met and London’s Royal Opera House.
Back In 1892, when Verdi seemed temporarily stalled on the project, Arrigo Boito, his young librettist, wrote to him: “After having sounded all the shrieks and groans of the human heart, to finish with a mighty burst of laughter – that is to astonish the world.”
Verdi and Boito’s “Falstaff” premiered at Milan’s La Scala on Feb. 9, 1893 – to bursts of laughter and shrieks of success.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.