Year of Shakespeare: Falstaff

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Falstaff, by Guiseppe Verdi, dir. Robert Carson, 23 May 2012, 7.30PM, at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.

By Dave Paxton, Shakespeare Institute

After an absence of about three years, I returned to my old haunt, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to see Robert Carson’s new production of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. Before setting off, I re-watched my DVD of the Met production, conducted by James Levine: it produced in me, as always, an ambivalent response, which was also my response to the live performance.

Actually, it’s just my normal response to the opera itself, however it’s performed and wherever I encounter it. I can never quite work out what precisely it is that troubles me about Falstaff, but I know that something does, and it’s not anything obvious. In fact, what’s most obvious about the work is its brilliance. The interpersonal drama, for example, is absolutely taut, even more so than it is in Verdi’s previous opera, Otello; the music is also staggeringly fertile and inventive, brimming with ideas, without a single dead stretch (unless, obviously, it’s conducted by someone incompetent). But I still feel that something’s not right…

I think – at least, this is all that I can come up with – that my doubts have to do with the nature of Verdi’s aesthetic at the end of his career. I adore the earlier works, though I also empathize with the people who think that the first two acts of Rigoletto are boring, that Il Trovatore doesn’t have a plot, and that La Traviata is objectionable on moral grounds. But something about those operas, for me, works; I feel that they showcase most clearly Verdi’s particular talents – they are exciting, energizing, moving; they release vigorous, authentic emotion but discipline it into tight musical structures; they provide their audience with an emotional release which is also a liberation and, more importantly, an education… they are a large part of the reason why some of us think that opera, done well, is miles better than anything else.

The Verdi of the last two dramas, however, is quite different, because this is a Verdi who has engaged with Wagner, and who is trying to push Italian opera beyond itself, into the new mature Germanic idiom (I am obviously being very schematic here). The arias and choruses have all-but disappeared, or at least they now work differently, more complexly; the through-composition has reached a new level of ingenuity; the oom-pah orchestral accompaniments have been largely replaced by a more imaginative sound-scape and set of orchestral effects. So far, so Wagnerian.

But Wagner broke down the operatic forms that he received, and reconstructed them, in order to do various idiosyncratic things, for example shatter his audience’s preconceptions and assumptions, engage them on a level deeper than that traditionally characterizable as ‘aesthetic,’ get them to think (surprisingly hard!), provide them with an overwhelming, perhaps transcendent, experience, and so forth. And what stands out obviously about Falstaff is that it doesn’t require a seriously engaged and thinking audience; it rather wants an audience who will laugh and find enjoyment in the action and music; Falstaff wants to give its audience pleasure, though clearly a sort of pleasure deeper than that attainable elsewhere. This is to say that Verdi has adopted the Wagnerian aesthetic, but he has not adopted the Wagnerian philosophy that underpins this aesthetic.

What results, I think, is something not entirely successful… the melodies of, say, La Traviata have gone, but the attempt at enjoyment is still there, just the same. Falstaff gestures forward to the new “post-operatic” opera, but it tries to give its audience-members satisfaction in the old style. I think that this is much less pronounced in Otello where, the pomposity, boring stretches and weird plot/character dislocations aside, there is actually a serious tragic narrative unfolding, to which one can easily grant one’s (emotional, though probably not intellectual) attention. But Falstaff is a different case. It’s absolutely admirable… but there’s something wrong with it deep down.

I have found, in the past, that the best way to enjoy Falstaff, and to surmount my concerns, is to get drunk beforehand; so I duly did this before I arrived at the Opera House. What resulted for me was an enjoyable evening, but I still felt too often detached from what was going on on-stage. I also tried, as I was watching, to mentally write a review, but this proved much more difficult than I had been anticipating.

I used to find reviewing very easy, too easy – this was when I was 18/19, and I reviewed for, and co-edited, a popular culture website. Back then, I attended perhaps two or three concerts, operas, ballets, film-screenings, theatre performances every week, and I wrote up my experiences when I returned home in the early morning. Back then, had I attended a Falstaff to review, which I don’t think I did, I would have concentrated on the scenery, the directorial interpretations and choices, the singers’ capabilities, the conducting, and other things along those lines. But these days, my mind moves in a different direction: attending live things much less often, and having begun to read extensively around things like aesthetic philosophy, literary criticism and “theory,” I am now much less performance-oriented, much less interested in examining the ingenuities of specific productions and performers, and much more interested in thinking about the art itself, how it’s structured, what its ideological function is, what its relation to other art is, why it’s important, and what it can do for me personally (I realize that a lot of academics start with the latter position and move to the former; I like the fact that I’ve done it the wrong way round!).

So I sat through Falstaff thinking largely about it – specifically trying to work out the grounds of my ambivalence to the work – but not responding to the performance in terms more sophisticated than ‘The set’s a bit gaudy,’ and ‘He’s not fat enough.’ The cast of singers did well, I thought, and the conductor held everything together admirably (which needs to happen, this being an ‘ensemble’ opera to an infamous degree, though in a different way than, say, Cosi Fan Tutte); the orchestra didn’t seem to me to sparkle as it might have done, but then I was sitting in an acoustically poor part of the house, under a balcony, so I may have missed a lot of the sound. I didn’t particularly like that a horse was put on-stage through the opera’s second half, though it drew from me a stronger response – apologetic sympathy – than anything else did. But the last act is staged excellently: the set draws apart to reveal an imposing star-studded night-scape, which sets the mood beautifully for the Midsummer Night’s Dream magic. The young lovers are also the most arresting, moving people on-stage.

When I wasn’t meditating on my reactions to the opera, I was meditating on its (the opera’s) ideological import – these things are tied together, of course. Falstaff clearly isn’t politically or ethically serious in the way that Mozart’s or Wagner’s (or Britten’s or…) best operas are, but it does deal with various important things – class, property, marriage, sexuality, popular fascism – which Carson sort-of brings out, by updating the opera to the 1950s, but which could be brought out a lot more. The opera does not, however, end with an imposed solution to the problems that it poses, nor does it give one the sense that the problems have been articulated with enough clarity and force that one can reflect on them on the train home. Instead, after all the complexity and intrigue, there is a concluding chorus the gist of which is that we are all crazy, so should be able to just laugh at each other – sung by the entire cast with, typically, as here, the house-lights up.

The problem with this sort of ending – unless it’s done unusually well, as it is by Mozart in Le Nozze di Figaro – is that it works as a dissipation and disavowal of what has come before, as a retreat into triviality. Instead of leaving the theatre pondering class divisions, or musing upon the ethical status of theft in a social structure which privatizes property, or thinking about marriage as a repressive, coercive institution (for men as well as women)… instead of doing any of this, one throws one’s hands up in the air, guffaws with laughter, and heads to the bar for another drink, care-free, thoughtless, still stuck in the prejudices with which one entered the theatre. Social issues have been engaged, but in a heavily structured and mediated way, and precisely so that one can then disengage from them at the final curtain and feel that that act of disengagement – such is the power of the music – is a liberation, a release; cue loud applause!

What should be our reaction to this? Is a political/theoretical critique appropriate, or does it go against the work’s good-natured humour? What would be the implications of going against the humour? Should one do that? And why?… in the name of what?

The fact that the ending, in its superficial hedonism, raises these questions at all perhaps finally elevates this opera – a nice paradox – to a level of seriousness.

What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Dave Paxton is a doctoral researcher at the Stratford Shakespeare Institute, writing on Shakespeare and Richard Wagner.

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