Sex, drink, food, and trouble: Verdi's Falstaff lives large Special

Posted Oct 2, 2014 by Cate Kustanczy
Canadian opera singer Gerald Finley says the timing’s right to make his debut as one of opera’s biggest and most beloved party boys.
Canadian baritone is performing the title role in  Falstaff   which opens the Canadian Opera Company...
Canadian baritone is performing the title role in 'Falstaff', which opens the Canadian Opera Company's 2014-2015 season.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
It seems strange to consider that Montreal-born, Ottawa-raised Gerald Finley hasn’t starred in a fully staged opera in his home country in two decades. That changes when the 64th season of the Canadian Opera Company kicks off on October 3rd with Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff, a comic opera revolving around the title character’s schemes and seductions, his appetite for decadence, his various entanglements with wives and husbands, and his passion for food, drink, and good times. The work is a social comedy with elements of satire, though, as Carsen’s production underlines, there is an immediacy to the themes of money and class amidst the hedonistic fun.
In creating the 1893 opera, librettist Arrigo Boito deftly integrated the plots of three plays by William Shakespeare (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV parts 1 and 2), while composer Giuseppe Verdi created a score filled with ever-changing harmonies and musical idioms from his past works (including, notably, 1867's grand Don Carlos). There’s a bewitching magic at play between Boito’s thoughtful libretto and Verdi’s polyphonic score, one that marries distinct cultural elements of the English and the Italian with effortless grace and charm. Though Verdi’s second comedy (the first was the unsuccessful Un giorno di regno from 1840), Falstaff was the composer’s final opera. It initially received a lukewarm reception at its premiere, but conducting greats (including Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, and Herbert von Karajan) championed the opera through the 20th century, and it has since gone on to enjoy regular stagings around the world.
Running through November 1st at Toronto's Four Seasons for the Performing Arts, Falstaff is a co-production between the Canadian company, the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where it made its North American debut last December), La Scala Milan, the Royal Opera House, and Dutch National Opera. Canadian-born director Carsen, whose last work with the COC was his celebrated production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in 2013, has updated Falstaff's setting, moving it from Tudor times to post-WW2 England — or, as he put it last December to Reuters, from the time of Elizabeth I to that of Elizabeth II.
That shift, says Finley, doesn’t affect the character of Falstaff, much less how he’s perceived. “I think Falstaff can exist in any age,” Finley says, his resonant, low speaking voice reflecting his onstage caramel-rich baritone.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Oper...
Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company's season-opening production of 'Falstaff.'
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
Finley, a Juno and Grammy Award-winner, has been living and working in the UK since 1994. As part of his return to the Canadian stage, he's experiencing extensive makeup and costuming transformations in order to play Shakespeare's rotund knight. The stunning physical metamorphosis, from Finley’s slim-and-trim, handsome self, to the robust and portly Falstaff, takes two hours in total. But before the makeup and prosthetics considerations, it’s clear Finley has invested considerable time and energy both in researching his character, and in contemplating his place within the wider operatic pantheon.
“The key word is “feed” — he feeds himself with everything: food, wine, women, poetry, great orations," Finley explains. "He’s not married, he has a lot of independent relationships, and as an individual, he looks after his own little kingdom. It’s clear (Falstaff) is both educated and cultured, too. He loves the use of words, loves descriptive elements, and is always investing flourish and bravura. For any opera singer, that's a gift. You can enjoy the sensation of the words spinning around in your mouth.”
That word-savoring is something Finley himself, as a leading performer of lieder (romantic German poems set to music), especially appreciates. “The whole joy of words, and word projection, is kind of the reason I do this job,” he says, smiling broadly.
A commitment to words is something Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, backs up. He recently commented to the CBC that Finley is "not a singer of sounds, he’s a singer of words.”
“I love the idea of infusing every element of our communication with a number of different layers: of passion, of pathos… but of passion really," Finley says, "of deep commitment as to why do we choose this particular word over another. This is what Falstaff does, even in the first scene.”
Finley, who started off his career as a chorister, has made a name as a gifted singer and performer. He's recording works by a range of composers (including Rossini, Verdi, Britten, Ravel, Elgar, Schumann, Bach, and Handel), and has created modern opera roles for composers John Adams (J. Robert Oppenheimer in 2005's Doctor Atomic was written specifically for him), Tobias Picker (1998's Fantastic Mr. Fox, after the Roald Dahl children's novel) and Mark-Anthony Turnage (in 2011's Anna Nicole, based on the life of blonde bombshell Anna Nicole Smith). He is also a noted, highly-praised recitalist. In 2012 Finley told OPERA NEWS that he “grew into opera. I was always firmly a song and concert singer [...] that’s what my whole life has been about — how do you sing the perfect song?”
For Falstaff, Finley finds himself attempting to answer that question by singing in what he terms the “Italianate” style, a style he suspects will expand his range as an artist.
“It’s been an ambition of mine, more specifically in the last five or eight, maybe ten years, and while I still have the resources, to really try and make my singing as accomplished as possible, and really look at the Italian school,” he explains. “A lot of the repertoire I do now still falls on the non-Italian side, but that’s why I really wanted to do Iago, it’s why I wanted to do things like William Tell (even though it’s in French, it’s Rossini) [...] I’m not getting any younger, and I feel in order to sing as long as possible, I have to keep my voice in as good a shape as possible. And it’s clear that in recordings of all these guys, these Italian guys singing into their 60s and 70s, even their 80s: okay there’s something in this! I’m aware it’s a career which can fall precipitously as one reaches a certain age.”
 Maybe I’m going for the perceived ‘older guys’ when I still have a lot of youthful energy   s...
"Maybe I’m going for the perceived ‘older guys’ when I still have a lot of youthful energy," says Finley with a smile. "I’m not exactly young — I’m in my mid 50s — but it’s something I hope I can sustain for a long time. The youthful aspect of my stage work is great, but I can’t do those younger roles forever."
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
The opportunity to sing the role, with a company Finley has long wanted to return to, in a style he’s wanting to expand, feels like a magical combination of elements. He last appeared with the COC in 1993, singing the lead role in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. “It was wonderful that this coordination, this coincidence of the COC co-sponsoring and me wanting to come back to the COC at this period of time, and in a role I wanted to do… it’s all synchronicity!”
Learning the words on a page for an actor is one thing, but for a singer, it’s another challenge. Verdi was very particular in marking the score of Falstaff with specific directions for singers. “Building up the moment when you know you’re going to deliver a phrase the way Verdi wants it delivered — that’s a gift for a singer,” he says emphatically. “It demands so much flexibility of vocal color, of energy, of delivery, of pure theatrical vastness from absolutely no voice to full, commanding, heroic sort of things… your voice needs to be in really good shape!”
“We have it much easier than actors,” he continues, “they literally have just the words on the page; the composer will give you a pitch and a volume and a marking as to how to define it, and it’s always fun to process, with coaches and conductors, to find out what makes the phrase live the most. That’s what the role of Falstaff, for me, has been all about.”
 I love the idea of singing great music and great repertoire while I still can   says baritone Geral...
"I love the idea of singing great music and great repertoire while I still can," says baritone Gerald Finley, "and Falstaff certainly is that."
Sim Canetty-Clarke
One of Finley's major achievements has been to sing all the major baritones roles of Mozart; he has been particularly applauded for his Don Giovanni, and has sung the role in New York, London, Paris, Munich Rome, Budapest, Tel Aviv and Glyndebourne. It could be argued that Sir John is an older version of Giovanni, something director Carsen himself recently suggested.
“Absolutely,” says the baritone, nodding in agreement, “it’s all about the vitality of experience and every moment is 'carpe diem'… but Falstaff isn’t as egocentric in terms of not caring what happens to other people. He’s much more interested in comfort and he’s very good at manipulating people for his comfort.”
That dexterity with manipulation, however, doesn’t imply any kind of maliciousness on Sir John's part. “He has a misguided or, at least a perceived view, that he is wonderful and everybody thinks he’s wonderful; Giovanni doesn’t care if anybody thinks he’s wonderful. He’s just afraid of getting caught, [...] he’s after the experience, which is why that trajectory is much more visceral and dangerous. Falstaff is a character of the ages. We all know a Falstaff.”