Falstaff - Strictly Dishonorable
Falstaff is generally held to be Shakespeare's greatest comic character
Our Falstaff director Kevin Newbury provided this commentary on his approach to the design and staging of Verdi’s comic masterpiece:
Falstaff is one of the stage’s most famous personalities: fun-loving, vice-ridden, mischievous, larger-than-life, inherently theatrical. Falstaff is, essentially, a big child, a knight past his prime who continues to surround himself with squires. In fact, in the opera, he plays host to three generations of apprentices: Bardolph, Pistol, and Robin, the young page who follows him everywhere. The opera’s plot focuses on middle-aged adults and their various machinations, encompassing greed, jealousy and entrapment.
It seems to me that Verdi, with his acute sense of humor, is presenting a kind of civics lesson for the children of Windsor. The opera begins with Falstaff ’s page opening the curtain on the action, prepared to learn everything he can from the Great Knight, and it ends with a parade of children, dressed as phantoms and fairies, both participating in and observing the consequences of a life devoted to mischief and vice.
Scenic designer Allen Moyer and I have been focusing on this theme of childhood as we build our design. How are the characters in the opera setting an example for the children around them? Whose approach to life is the most sound: Falstaff ’s, with his gluttonous need for constant amusement, or Ford’s, with his jealous live-wire temper? Perhaps it’s the Ladies of Windsor, who use their wit to ensnare both Falstaff and Ford while instructing the town’s children about how to behave? How do we bring to life a uniquely theatrical world that features elaborate disguises, charades and mini-performances, all occurring against the backdrop of country life and domesticity?
Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, on which the plot of Verdi’s opera is based, was written in 1597 for a celebration of new knighthoods. Since Falstaff clings so firmly to his knighthood, we thought it would be fun to keep the opera in its original time period. In particular, we have been drawn to Jan Steen’s paintings of lively domestic scenes.
We begin in Falstaff ’s room at the Garter Inn, which, in our production, is essentially a barn. As a result of his wayward lifestyle, Falstaff has been relegated to a space barely fit for animals, littered with hay, farm equipment, liquor bottles, and remnants of his prized knighthood, including a saddle, a large suit of armor, and a huge lance stuck in the wall—most likely impaled there during a night of drunken revelry.
Ford’s home and backyard, on the other hand, represent neatness and civility. His study is full of lovely still-lives, period furniture and symmetrical décor, including taxidermy bucks’ heads lined up neatly on the wall, emphasizing, of course, the dual themes of cuckoldry and entrapment. But by the time Falstaff leaves Ford’s house at the end of the Act II (encased in a laundry basket, no less), Ford’s tidy home resembles Falstaff ’s barn. And, throughout, Alice, Meg and Mistress Quickly are using Falstaff ’s methods of prevarication and trickery to beat him at his own game.
Like The Marriage of Figaro, the action in Falstaff eventually has to move outside into the open air, as though the various activities were busting the walls apart at the seams. The last scene of Falstaff is, for me, the most exciting, not only because it offers the biggest transformation, but also because it opens the door for us to play with magical, supernatural elements. As Quickly says, the Huntsman’s Oak is “a place of witching.”
Throughout the opera, Falstaff proudly refers to his “trunk solid, erect, capacious” and calls himself “a flower that laughs.” Caius calls Falstaff “the sprout of a mandrake” (a poisonous plant whose root resembles human form). All of these comparisons to trunks and human-like trees suggest that the tree itself comes to life. Allen the designer and I have collected photos of some amazing, gigantic oaks, many from the English countryside, and we are currently playing with ways in which the tree can seem to grow in front of our eyes. Does Falstaff just think it’s coming alive? Are the citizens of Windsor pulling the strings? Or is it, indeed, a place of witching? We hope that the oak will be genuinely impressive, scary, and fantastical.
While menacing and threatening, the last scene is also romantic and starry-eyed. Nannetta sings, “The star of enchantment has risen in heaven,” and describes the scene as follows:
On the breath of an Ethesian breeze, Scamper, agile phantoms, Among the boughs an azure glow Of moonrise has appeared. Dance! And let a soft sound Measure your soft tread, Coupling the magic Dances to the song.
Indeed, it sounds like the magic unique to a summer evening in Santa Fe, providing us with the perfect inspiration for an enchanted forest.
My goal with this production of Falstaff is to create a world true to Shakespeare’s original setting—the same world that inspired Verdi—and tell a story that is at once hilarious, beautiful, magical, and, ultimately, forgiving. What better lesson to teach the children of Windsor than, as Falstaff says, “Everything in the world is jest... Laughs well he who laughs last.”
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