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The Merry Wives of Windsor/Falstaff

An Aria in Praise of the Fat Knight

Falstaff score by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito (English version by W. Beatty Kingston)
Shakespeare Opera Theatre, Hylton Performing Arts Center, Manassas, Virginia
Sunday, April 24, 2016, third row center in 242-seat studio theater
The Merry Wives of Windsor directed by Brittany Martz; Falstaff directed and conducted by Lori Lind

Around a tree in a park, various men and women in Elizabethan costumes with claws upraised close in on Falstaff sitting at the base of the tree.
The cast of Falstaff (and a couple members of The Merry Wives of Windsor cast) in a promo photo for the Shakespeare Opera Theatre. The company is playing Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera in repertoire. Photo by Kenneth Garrett, Shakespeare Opera Theatre.

This was such a unique repertoire we couldn't help take notice: William Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor with Giuseppe Verdi's opera Falstaff. The aptly named Shakespeare Opera Theatre in Manassas, Virginia, is the brainchild of professional opera singer Lori Lind. Serving as both artistic and executive director, Lind founded Shakespeare Opera Theatre on the "dream of bringing theater and opera together to explore Shakespeare's peerless masterpieces." In its inaugural season last year, the company paired Much Ado About Nothing with Hector Berlioz's Béatrice and Bénédict.

The company's marketing director, baritone Gregory Scott Stuart, who plays Ford in Merry Wives and Bardolfo in Falstaff, offers up a slightly more subversive mission statement: "To make opera lovers out of Shakespeare lovers, and Shakespeare lovers out of opera lovers." Based on the current repertoire, the Shakespeare Opera Theatre has the goods to accomplish the former but a ways to go on the latter. Falstaff, with a seven-piece ensemble to one side of the stage, is well sung and grandly staged, especially the Windsor woods finale with fairies and nymphs. Merry Wives, on the other hand, lurches along with a mostly inexperienced company and a director who works from the premise that her audience is scared of Shakespeare. Saving the production is G. Michael Harris as one of the greatest Falstaffs I've ever seen.

The cast list for The Merry Wives of Windsor leads off with "Lecturer," played by Stuart. He introduces the play and the circumstances of its composition, including the legend that Queen Elizabeth gave Shakespeare two weeks to write a play about Falstaff falling in love. The Lecturer also gives us a bit of background on the play's place in the canon and how some scholars label it Shakespeare's worst piece. This apparently is intended to ease our fears, though there's much irony in Directory Brittany Martz leading off the play in this manner, given the first two sentences that lead off her director's note: "As strange as it seems to me, 'Shakespeare' is a word that can often send dread through people's hearts. Upon hearing it, many are transported back to their high school English classes." And here is Lecturer doing just that at the opening of this play.

It doesn't stop there. Stuart returns between scenes to continue his lecture, and as Falstaff and Mistress Ford begin their first tryst, the Lecturer pops his head out and says to the audience, "Is this what the queen wanted to see?" Some of what he says is bizarre, too. He discusses the difference between prose and verse in the lines, notes that 87 percent of Falstaff's lines are in prose while Hamlet spoke prose 27 percent of the time, and suggests that Shakespeare liked Hamlet 73 percent more than Falstaff. Is the math even right? The logic certainly isn't. And then, with a wink to the audience, Stuart begins playing Ford. He's fine as Ford, but every time he comes on stage, we brace for another lecture and relax only when we are certain he's Ford. Furthermore, taken collectively, the Lecturer's pontifications seem to be emphasizing the denigration this play gets, and at the end he puts it to us to decide if the play is really good or not—always a dangerous move with a cast that is obviously relatively new to Shakespeare.

Though the cast is eager to please, most of the actors engage in overwrought facial expressions, air-sawing with hands, and blocking that keeps everybody on the move over a large, unfocused stage (despite being a studio theater). It's dizzying. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are constantly snickering with each other, so pleased are they with the jokes they are playing on Falstaff and Ford, but it becomes a distractive leitmotif as the play runs its course. The production's biggest laughs come when Caroline Dubberly as Alice Ford plays out Hern the Hunter while Meg Page (Kathryn Katsikis) describes the mythical character: Dubberly shows off great physical skills with her angular-armed, tongue-waggling, eye-popping performance here, but it visually drowns out what we are hearing from Mistress Page.

Martz has the nice idea of putting a rack of costumes at the back of the stage and we see actors replacing cloaks as they change characters. But scene transitions take too long, partly due to poor pacing, partly due to the production playing the entire horizontal space available (perhaps one issue that needs to be addressed in staging plays in repertoire with opera is reconciling spatial needs). Some acting choices also have mixed results. CJ David is a manic Pistol, as physically over the top as the dialogue Shakespeare wrote for the character from his first appeareance in Henry IV, Part Two through Merry Wives to Henry V. David's intense portrayal is fitting and funny. Meanwhile, Kelsey Painter as Nym matches Pistol tic for tic in physicality, and I'm not sure that fits the "humors" of Nym, especially as the two actors together create a Pistol-Nym pair as visually energetic as two tornadoes bearing down on us. At least the two actors pick up the nuanced humor in their roles and give us a fun comedy duo, too, and Painter further demonstrates her acting chops with her steadily serious take on Fenton (David's double dose of talent manifests later).

These merry wives are merry only with each other. In general company and with her husband, Dubberly's Mistress Ford is a scowling bitch. Certainly, the part has some holier-than-thee elements, but what obvious acting skills Dubberly has is buried in her character's histrionics. That, though, is in keeping with the extremist tone of the entire production. Molly Pinson Simoneau, for example, plays Shallow as an aggressively leering old man, getting so hands-on (or cane-on) with young Anne Page (Charlotte Blacklock) as to be criminal. It gets laughs from some in the audience, but when Shallow casts a creepier specter on the women in the play than Falstaff does, you've sent your production into the shoals.

Except that Harris single-handedly steers it into more pleasant waters, and he does it with a perfectly understated performance of the fat knight. He "has been physically preparing for Falstaff for most of the past decade," he writes in his bio. This admission, though, goes to the heart of his portrayal of Falstaff as a man I know well in real life: my college roommate; a couple of guys who have sat behind us at ball games; a couple of coworkers I've known; and guys standing in queues, dining at adjacent tables at restaurants, or sitting somewhere within earshot on the train. He's gregarious, he's full of himself (and there's a lot of himself to fill), he is overflowing in charm and absent of tact, and he has a misaligned moral compass, but he's funny. And in that funny, he's likeable. It's notable that all those Falstaffs I listed in real life are usually surrounded by friends, though they are annoying to the rest of us.

In Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff describes himself as "sweet Jack Falstaff," and Harris captures that self-image without ever undermining the scoundrel Falstaff really is. In his portrayal, Harris peaks with Falstaff's description of being carried in a laundry basket and dumped in the Thames along with the "greeeeeeasy napkins." "What I have suffered to bring this woman to evil," Falstaff says, and Harris delivers this line so matter-of-factly it tickles. And the play's most unusual line, "Let the sky rain potatoes," Harris turns into a celebration of what he imagines would be the greatest miracles a man can behold: two women at the same time and food pouring from the heavens. It is an exquisite Falstaff that Harris presents.

Harris also plays well with others. The only Equity member of the cast, he obviously strives to create an ensemble (you see it in the curtain call), and thus he develops a sweet pairing with Bradyn Heck as Mistress Quickly (Heck doubles as Slender, a fine performance, though his climbing on the back of his servant, Simple, in their opening scene together makes no sense). In this production, there's no doubt that Falstaff and Quickly become lovers. Nerissa Hart also earns kudos for her performance as Dr. Caius, clipping off her lines commandingly, snapping her fingers at her servant John Rugby (Blacklock), and channeling her physical energies into stiff poses of resolve as opposed to overblown movements. Hart doubles as Bardolph, doing her duties as tapster in the inn with sour grapes in her demeanor.

I have less to say about Verdi's Falstaff though there is more to value in that production (which is sung in English). It comes down to my qualifications to assess. While I've seen well over 400 Shakespeare stage productions, including 10 Merry Wives, this was my fourth live opera and first Falstaff, though I grew up with parents who loved opera and played it often (and loud—I could never play the Who so loud as my dad played Wagner). Most of the principals in this Falstaff are in good voice, with special notice to Jennifer Sin as Nannetta Page and CJ David as Fenton—yes, the manic Pistol of that afternoon's Merry Wives becomes the romantic Fenton in Falstaff. His and Sin's voices blend beautifully in the duets, which is one of the musical highlights of Verdi's score. Another is the last act in Windsor Woods, gorgeously introduced with a measure of French horn and woodwinds. Under Lind's conducting, the seven-piece ensemble manages to create an orchestral quality equal to the score's grandeur.

The Shakespearean highlight of Verdi's last masterpiece is the title character, sung by Kevin Rockower. I don't know if he and Harris combined on character notes, but Rockower gives us a Falstaff similar to Harris's in easy temperament and casual demeanor. There's nothing overblown about his performance—even though this is opera. Falstaff and Quickly (a delightful Natalie Naudus) are an item in the opera, too, even getting a duet in which he proudly proclaims, "She's mine, she's mine" (and afterward sings a triumphant aria about how all women lust for him).

Although Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, based the opera on the plot and characters of The Merry Wives of Windsor, he incorporates some passages from the Henry IV plays, too, including Falstaff's "honor" soliloquy, which he sings here in response to Bardolph and Pistol (Stuart and Phillip K. Bullock, respectively, both doing masterful work) refusing to carry Falstaff's letters to Mistresses Ford and Page on account of their honor. The juxtapositions are notable: in Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff's meditation on honor is in the context of an upcoming battle; here, it's in the context of a company of thieves. Falstaff's speech on sack from Henry IV, Part Two, also makes it into Verdi's opera, and there's nothing quite so uplifting as hearing Falstaff sing an aria to booze.

No wonder Falstaff has so many friends.

Eric Minton
April 29, 2016

Reader response:

Dear Mr. Minton,

Like you, I grew up in an opera-loving family. Not only that, I was a backstage brat. My mother and paternal grandmother were both operatic divas. My grandmother, Luisa Ardizzoni Tosi, was an international star in the Caruso era. She was my mother's teacher in Boston.

Giuseppe Verdi—who famously revered the Bard—first introduced me to Shakespeare. I knew Verdi's Macbeth and his late masterpieces Otello and Falstaff well before I knew how to spell iambic pentameter, or realized that "Othello" wasn't a misspelling of "Otello." I didn't stumble into the world of Shakespeare's plays until I was a teen. As an Italianate kid, one of the first things I noticed was how many of them led back to Italy: Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen From Verona, etc.

So began a romance—a cross-pollination—that enriches my life, particularly as a writer wandering wide-eyed along the many Shakespearean pathways into art, literature, and music. Thus, I have the Bard and Verdi to thank for Ophelia Rising, my fictional biography of the fair maiden's life before and after Hamlet. Actually, I should also thank French composer Ambroise Thomas because the idea for that novel first occurred to my after leaving a dreadful performance of Thomas' ponderous, romantic grand opera Hamlet (which he should have entitled Ophelia) in San Francisco. The performance didn't stick with me, but the idea kept percolating until I finally sat down wrote the book, and a sequel on which I am currently at work.

Umberto Tosi
May 9, 2016

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