The fat, boastful but cowardly knight Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, and this weekend he’ll appear in his own opera.
Legend holds that Falstaff was so popular in his day that Queen Elizabeth I asked for a play that showed him in love. The result was “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in which Falstaff tries to woo multiple married women simultaneously.
The play — as well as scenes from “Henry IV” — inspired Giuseppe Verdi to pen the opera “Falstaff” in celebration of this grand comic figure. A lifelong Shakespeare fanatic, Verdi also turned “Macbeth” and “Othello” into operas. But with “Falstaff” he had something to prove.
As a young man, Verdi wasn’t accepted to a conservatory because of his poor counterpoint work, a technique in which multiple melodic lines are played at the same time. Additionally, for all of Verdi’s successes as a composer, his previous attempt at a comic opera was 53 years earlier with the disastrous “Un giorno di regno.” At the age of 79, Verdi wanted to show he could accomplish both tasks, and the result was “Falstaff.”
To coincide with Verdi’s 200th birthday, Virginia Opera is staging its first production of the work.
“If you’re familiar with most of the Verdi operas, this one’s a little different,” maestro Joseph Rescigno says. “‘Falstaff’ is rare. There are companies that have never done it.”
Rescigno likens the music to a combination of Rossini and Bach, and says Verdi even parodies his own work in “Falstaff.” At one point in the second act, nine voices sing in 6/8 time, while five men sing in 4/4.
“Late in life, he not only writes a great comedy, he writes some of the best counterpoint ever written,” Rescigno says. “It’s one of my absolute very favorite operas.”
In addition to being a rare Verdi comedy, this show is different in that it will be staged in the late 1800s instead the work’s original setting of Tudor England.
“We’ve set it in the period it was written in very roughly, and we have made the decision to make our Falstaff a sort of fading theatrical knight,” says Stephen Lawless, the show’s director. In consideration of both Shakespeare and Verdi’s lives in theater, this production makes Falstaff a down-on-his-luck actor, and changes his henchmen into his hairdresser and bodyguard.
“It’s a masterpiece,” says baritone Stephen Powell, who will star as Falstaff. “This is on such a high level that there’s something in it for everyone.”
Powell says the role is challenging, and that the production makes interesting use of Falstaff’s corpulence — though he doesn’t want to give away any surprises. “He says, ‘It’s my kingdom,’ and without it, he wouldn’t be who he is,” Powell says of Falstaff’s heft.
For Lawless, the key to “Falstaff” is considering Verdi’s age when he wrote the piece, his final opera. “There is an element to it of old age, given the fact that Verdi didn’t know if he was going to live long enough to finish writing in,” he says. “[Falstaff] is more a man getting older than simply being a bad knight.”
Virginia Opera’s “Falstaff” plays Richmond CenterStage on Oct. 4 and 6. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 1-866-OPERA-VA.