Larger Than Life 'Falstaff' Takes Center Stage At San Diego Opera
Verdi's opera looks to Shakespeare's plays for inspiration
This is KPBS mid-day edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. William Shakespeare's character Sir John Falstaff had a larger-than-life presence in the Henry IV historical play and in the comedy, the Merry wives of Windsor. Those plays provide the inspiration for verities operate, Foster. San Diego Opera opens its production to. Beth Okamoto speaks with the director, Olivia embassy about the -- translating Shakespeare into Opera. So you are directing the San Diego Opera of Falstaff. What is it life like to bring it to Opera? I did not know so much that Shakespeare, it is quite amazing, to bring it to Italy, so the vitality that goes throughout this Opera is much more than Shakespeare offers and Henry IV, or in the Merry wives of Windsor. These are the inspirations for the piece. So we put these pieces together but made something completely new from it. The main character is Falstaff, but there is another character that is more important, but that is life itself. The opera is about vitality from the first measures of the orchestra. [ Music ] You hear the orchestra starts to speak, starts to laugh, and starts to say let -- yes to life. He was around 18 when he composed this Opera, and he had a long career of tragic operas. Operas that say no to life, couples like Don Carlo and is a better, and we find a better life over there. Take about IE to and dying under the pyramids. We hope to finally be happy when life is over. Not Falstaff, this is an opera about being happy. It is where you feel the simple things of life, like drinking a glass of red wine and drinking -- eating cheese, feeling alive. No matter if you are a child or a middle-aged person, or in their old person. You feel these pulsations of life. And that is amazing. I think it is quite a unique not just among operas, among all kind of artworks, movies, paintings, whatever. You find very few works of art that are so pulsating with life. This is through these 2 1/2 hours. Shakespeare created Falstaff as a larger-than-life character. Does he lend himself to Opera? If you look at what he does, he is not such a sympathetic character. You describe in as evil, egocentric, focused on his own lust, and his greed for food, women, for life, for money so it's not what they do in this Opera. Funny is how they talk about it. How the music makes you feel it. [ Music ] Nobody of us Opera lovers is in love with this character, or whoever in the opera, but we all love Falstaff. As evil, and childish he is, everybody lives in. Opera would be so much poorer without this character. How did they do it? It is kind of a mystery. I think it is the lust for life, it is the love for life, it is the desire to appreciate life and enjoy life in small things, in big things, in every aspect. Talk about the staging of it here, the set is gorgeous. It is an opera that is incredibly dense. It is about language, if you take a normal Opera and take two minutes out, it happens so much things in the same two minutes and Falstaff, many things happen. Musically, in these two minutes, focusing on the orchestra, for each person in the orchestra, you play for 20 minutes each of the instruments is fully busy with all kind of music every moment. So musically, so we are staging so many thoughts have to be made aware to the audience. So much subtle messages, that the person conveys to each other. But also the hidden desires, what they really want for each other. Our task is to make this all visible. And to make it visible in a funny way, you know that he started as a composer, and his second one was a commit -- comedian, he failed completely. He was king for a day, he failed completely and no one wants to see it. Rosina can do it so much better they said. It is obviously not your talent. So we had this long career which are about daggers and poison, and people falling in love, they are doomed from the beginning to death, and we know it not will be a happy end. Now he proves to the world that he can make an audience laugh. That is what we want to achieve. And to be able to convey this humor and this laughter to the audience. We worked very -- this Opera was an outburst of love. What was the biggest challenge to bring it to the stage? The timing. Most operas are about tragic things, and the intensity of feelings. So there it can be, you know you can stand 2 inches from where you were yesterday and the singers can have a strong feeling and do the scene much better than they did in the previous performance. In comedy, as every comedian will tell you, this is not possible. You cannot you can either do it in good timing or it is wrong. The timing for us is connected at the same time with this incredible rhythmical complex and for all the singers, wonderful but at the same time incredibly difficult score. Which has to be performed meticulously. We cannot just convey feelings of the rehearsals, you feel like that, and not try something, but we have to be incredibly precise in each and every movement. That is the challenge. Thank you very much for your time.
William Shakespeare's character of Sir John Falstaff had a larger than life presence in the "Henry IV" historical plays and in the comedy "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Those plays provide the inspiration for Verdi's opera "Falstaff" that San Diego Opera premieres Feb. 18 at the Civic Theatre.
Sir John Falstaff is a man with a large appetite for food, women and wine. But this carnal being suddenly finds himself broke, so he conceives a plan to woo a pair of married women to get his hands on their wealthy husbands’ purse strings. But the women find him out and make merry with poor Sir John.
Edith Frampton is on the faculty in English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She said although Shakespeare conceived his character more than four centuries ago, the play still has a lot to say to a contemporary audience.
"This is a play where you have women taking on a powerful activist role," Frampton said.
"It is a comedy, but it has a subversive message underneath, and it has one of the most astonishing characters in the literary canon, Falstaff, which is the appeal of what led to this opera," she said. "It’s about women who decide to take matters into their own hands and beat a large, manipulative man at his own game, a member of the upper crust of society who needs some money, who tries to trick them, but they trick him at his own game."
This production of "Falstaff" brings the opera to life with a versatile set that opens, expands and reveals nooks and crannies as needed to support the farcical behavior of its title character.
"The main character, of course, is Falstaff, but there is another character, which for me is more important, and that is life itself," said Olivier Tambosi, the opera's director. "So the opera is about vitality from the first measures of the orchestra. This is an opera about being happy right here, right now. It’s an opera where you feel the simple things of life like drinking a glass of red wine and a piece of cheese and feeling the sunbeams on your skin and feeling yourself alive."
Frampton pointed out that although the women create a lot of comic chaos during the play and make Sir John the butt of their jokes, "at the end, they bring the whole community together, and everyone forgives Falstaff for all of his faults, partly because in spite of the fact that he’s greedy and manipulative, he can be incredibly charming at the same time. So it is a celebration of life that we get through the character of Falstaff."
"We all love Falstaff as evil and childish as he is, everybody loves him. Opera would be so much poorer without him," Tambosi said.
San Diego Opera's "Falstaff" opens Saturday and has additional performances on Feb. 21, 24 and 26.