Every time Gerald Finley takes on the role of Falstaff it means’ a two hour makeup ordeal . Finley is like a classier version of Mike Myers’ “Fat Bastard”, and yet so much more.
Falstaff? Yes he is Shakespeare’s fat man, a bad influence on Prince Hal in Henry IVth, part I, pushed aside when Hal ascends to the throne in Henry IVth part 2, and his death is reported in Henry V. But he was too good of a character for Shakespeare to ignore, so he had to be brought back in another later play, namely The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Falstaff is also Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito that combines parts from several plays –mostly Merry Wives of Windsor—in a surprising score. While Verdi may be best known for operas inducing tears –thinking of La traviata or Rigoletto—Verdi’s last opera is completely different. It has the necessary pace of a comedy, which is to say, very fast and energetic.
Tonight was the opening of the new Canadian Opera co-production directed by Robert Carsen. In the lobby conversation beforehand it may have been a pure accident that we were talking about fat people and weight loss. Why, we mused, must women be thin, and some even undergo weight-loss surgery, when men can still splendidly ignore the pressure to lose weight? In this respect Falstaff touches a deep nerve, even if the story is relatively trite among the Shakespearean or Verdian canon, a fun romp rather than something profound. But in a world wrestling with the body-image question, one can’t help noticing that the jokes about fat and eating get huge laughs. Who doesn’t wrestle with anxiety about attractiveness & our ability to control ourselves?
For those of us who have been eagerly waiting for Finley to appear in an opera here in Toronto –a big star in the opera world, with several amazing international successes & a series of wonderful recordings to his credit—this isn’t what we might have expected. And yet it’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. Finley is Falstaff, and he’s larger than life physically, vocally, and in every sense that matters.
Like a true Don Juan, Finley’s Falstaff believes his own hype, behaving like God’s gift to women. Falstaff is a walking embodiment of the pleasure principle, loving his food, his drink and especially the opposite sex. At times his flirtation is subtle, but when it counts he is the most blatantly physical Falstaff I’ve ever seen, throwing his body into action. In one magical section in Act II we watch a transformation of sorts, as the presence of Mistress Quickly (and her report of the attractions of Meg & Alice to the supposedly irresistible Sir John) seems to arouse him, getting him to move faster & more vividly. I suppose the massage to his romantic ego might be the motivation, but it’s immediately manifested in his posture & pace, as he seems rejuvenated. He begins to caper around the stage a bit like an operatic Jackie Gleason, his moves as smooth as a chubby vaudevillian.
The chemistry between Finley and Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly is one of the highlights throughout, as she is one of the few in the cast whose performance can match Finley; although in fairness it’s hard when you can’t take your eyes off the star. But in the scenes between Lemieux & Finley there’s such a sense of warmth & fun at work, I am sure they were enjoying themselves as much as the enraptured audience watching.
Russell Braun seems to be on a slightly different career path with the COC than before. At one time he was a romantic lead, for example as Prince Andrei in War & Peace, or Pelléas or Oreste. With maturity, he’s sometimes in less rewarding parts, even some that might be called thankless, such as the Count di Luna (a very difficult role to sing), or as the Duke of Nottingham in Roberto Devereux. As the jealous husband Ford, Braun is again taking on a role that can be daunting, and making much more of it than usual, especially on the dramatic side. This is the most memorable Ford I’ve ever seen, as I found myself again fascinated by Braun’s choices.
I should acknowledge Robert Carsen’s production, that moves the action from the first Elizabeth to the second, aka the 1950s. In so doing I sense that Carsen seeks to make more of the opera & its story, a valiant effort. The tensions we experience—both the one between the original and the modernized version, and of course, between the 1950s and our own time—energize many moments that otherwise are nothing more than fluff in Verdi’s opera. The scene set in a classic 1950s kitchen is unexpectedly electrifying due to the design features. We watch Simone Osborne as Nannetta in this scene, upset that her father wants her to marry someone she doesn’t love, begin to stuff herself at the kitchen table, a moment of remarkable innocence considering where we’ve come in the decades since, and a brief glimpse of the dark side of Falstaff’s epic indulgences.
Food is everywhere in this production, and because of the decade it’s guilt-free as far as I can tell. Those were the days.
There’s much more to the production than what I’ve captured here, but the main thing is to recognize that it’s elegant fun, and a delightful departure from the usual. Gerald Finley puts his fat suit back on to give us more and more Falstaff until November 1st at the Four Seasons Centre.