Gerald Finley is Falstaff

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.

Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production ofFalstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

(l-r) Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Lyne Fortin as Alice Ford, Lauren Segal as Meg Page and Simone Osborne as Nannetta in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

(l-r) Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Lyne Fortin as Alice Ford, Lauren Segal as Meg Page and Simone Osborne as Nannetta in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

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7 Responses to Gerald Finley is Falstaff

  1. Susan Weiss says:

    This is the most insidious review I’ve ever read!

    Insulting, as you do not even mention the orchestra, the conductor; maybe they weren’t there!

    And about Russell Braun:
    “he’s sometimes in less rewarding parts, even some that might be called thankless, such as the Count di Luna”

    Really, this role is “thankless”????!!!!

    And, all you can talk about Simone Osborne is: “stuffing her face”! How did she sing?

    Barcza, shame on you!

    Your are insulting!

    Enough!

    • barczablog says:

      Ford is indeed thankless, it’s very hard to make a positive impression in the role. Like di Luna, he’s a villain, a jerk. At the end of Trovatore i was not looking at Azucena or Manrico but instead staring at Braun, the most interesting person on the stage. I did not love Braun’s work in the springtime Donizetti, but i think sometimes naturally it’s a question of whether one should be singing that role. Ford is also thankless because sometimes –like di Luna– the role faces big loud orchestral bursts that cover singers. Germont in Traviata is a much more sympathetic role. Alas i miss the roles where we hear his beautiful voice, a tone we aren’t allowed to hear because the roles don’t exploit that lovely sound of his. I felt Braun fared well in a role that doesn’t offer you a chance to cover yourself with glory. In other words, it’s thankless. And it’s a challenging time in a career, to be doing this sort of role. That’s tough, don’t you think? WHY are you taking me to task for saying something that –to my knowledge– nobody talks about..? I am as far as i know, the kindest reviewer anywhere. I usually omit any mention of people whose performance displeased me. Simone Osborne was fine, but hello I was already writing after midnight, and knew i was seeing the opera again next Thursday, so i’d be able to fill in more.

      I didn’t address the conducting because i thought it wasn’t great. In Act 1 in those difficult ensembles (scene 2) they almost came apart a couple of times, and there were other places where singers were ahead or behind. Still it’s a tough score, so rather than slam the conductor in a first performance, i made no mention. But if you’re gonna say “shame” i will reply. I usually omit judiciously.

      But speaking of “enough” i think i’ve said enough.

      OH one other thing. “Insulting?” Insults, like beauty, are entirely an attribution, in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is an insult a priori.

      I am still a bit mystified by your response. This isn’t bel canto, it’s a concept version of Verdi’s last opera, which is another way of saying that the singing –even Gerald Finley’s singing– isn’t as important as it would be in a different style of opera. oh well…. win some, lose some…

    • Alison Gray says:

      This is the most insulting comment I’ve ever read.

  2. Alison Gray says:

    Leslie, your final paragraph starts “There’s much more to the production than what I’ve captured here,” goes on to mention “elegant fun” and “delightful departure from the usual.” I guess Susan Weiss hasn’t read the entire review…
    Having read the entire review, I come away from it wanting to experience the production and see/hear for myself. As always, your thoughtfulness towards the performers engages this reader. Cheers.

    • barczablog says:

      Alison, thank you for the vote of confidence. But just as artists are susceptible to negative comments as soon as they put themselves out there, so too anyone in the blogosphere. You can’t please everyone, right? And come to think of it, there would be something wrong if i did.

  3. Wonderful review and looks a very entertaining night out.. 🙂

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks Sue! In fact it’s deeper than some productions i’ve seen of this opera. Carsen makes it relevant to the present, which makes it a darker comedy: but still huge fun.

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