Ah, Falstaff. Verdi’s timeless operatic classic takes centre stage at the Opera de Montreal this month, guaranteed to issue a few laughs and approval from the audience. In many respects, Falstaff is comedic and light-hearted while remaining thought-provoking. Based partly on Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor, this three-act commedia lirica takes on dark themes of revenge and retaliation in a subtle fashion.
John Falstaff, a pot-bellied drinker bogged down with financial troubles, realizes he needs to fix up his bank account. Also, Falstaff obviously has not checked himself out in the mirror lately, since he still believes he can woo wealthy ladies.
Mistake number one: Falstaff sends out two love letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page, both wives of affluent Windsor citizens. Mistake number two: the letters are identical.
At first amused, the wives become angry and decide that Falstaff needs to learn a lesson. Page and Ford, along with Mistress Quickly, scheme to pretend they are interested in Falstaff. The jovial Mistress Quickly steals away to Falstaff’s residence, claiming that both women are enthralled with Falstaff. Overjoyed, Falstaff delivers a mighty aria (“Va, vecchio John/Go, old Jack, go on your way”).
Meanwhile, Mr. Ford (husband of Alice) learns of Falstaff’s ruse and interrupts his attempts, ready to lynch Falstaff. Hiding behind a hamper, Falstaff is shortly thrown out in the ditch through the window. Things are not looking good for Falstaff.
By Act III, Falstaff is grumpy. Licking his wounds, he resolves to dowse his sorrows, so out comes the mulled wine. Encouraged to seduce Alice once again, Falstaff hits another brick wall when a horde of “elves” and “fairies” (who are actually his disguised servants) thrash at him violently.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux shines in her role as Mistress Quickly, whom she has played no less than 52 times.
“I love being back home in Quebec, but I won’t say that I am not stressed,” she said. “I am as nervous about the role as [I was] in Milan, Paris or London.”
Lemieux finds Verdi enthralling because of the opera’s freshness and youthfulness.
“This was a man nearing the end of his life, and he managed to make this opera sound both joyful and young. He was 76 years old! I also love to sing Verdi because it is very dramatic. It is like champagne,” said the contralto.
Lemieux credits the good team she has been working with for her success so far.
“The orchestral conductor is magnificent. When we perform together, I sometimes get emotional. [Once], my make-up was running all over the place by the end of one performance,” Lemieux recalled.
Speaking of her role, Lemieux feels it is an important one, vital to the storyline, adding that she loves playing the mistress.
“Mistress Quickly is the link that holds people together. She is a very developed character, she is always intervening in situations,” she explained
In the title role is Oleg Bryjak; Gianna Corbisiero plays Alice Ford and Lauren Segal takes on Meg Page. Internationally renowned Italian conductor Daniele Callegari takes the baton, leading the Orchestre Métropolitain.
David Gately, stage director for Falstaff, also nurtures fond emotions for the opera.
“I have directed this opera a total of eight times, and to this day it remains one of my favourites,” he said. “The piece is full of life, full of good spirits. The more I direct Falstaff, the more I am amazed,” says the Seattle-based director, adding “I love directing in Montreal too. This will be my fifth time directing in this city.”
Before each performance, a pre-Opera talk with musicologist Pierre Vachon will shed light on the opera in the Piano Nobile room at 6:30 p.m.
Verdi’s Falstaff will run for four days only on Nov. 9, 12, 14 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.