Kanen Breen wears a dress, yet again

Last night with D to Opera Australia’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Oceans of ink have been spilt on this opera and its quicksilver style.

As with its Shakespeare source, the plot (in Boito’s version sketched to the bare minimum) is just an excuse to bring a beloved character to the stage.

There are almost no set-piece arias and the action and dialogue are fast-paced and full of good bits from Shakespeare. Maybe that’s why there were more empty seats down at the surtitle-foreshortened front than is usually the case.

I have seen this production on, I think, all of its Sydney outings (1996, 1999 with Bryn Terfel very memorably as the big bloke, 2006). The set in the first two acts and the first scene of the last act is terrific. I still don’t think the last scene really works. The revolving set which serves for the Windsor locales slides to the back of the stage and yields to a box of verdant flats for Windsor forest. There is fog and a bit of snow falling. On a finicky note, just that afternoon Sir John was drinking in the sun, albeit with a few conceivably autumnal leaves dropping. How can the weather have come to snow so quickly? That’s just an attempt to fill the empty stage, I expect. The stage also feels too bright.

As Peter McCallum says in his latest review, this empty stage puts a big burden on the singers and, I would add, on the music – particularly when (because the chorus, as fairies and devils, are constrained by walking on their knees) the movement is also rather limited. When Falstaff responded “Oi, Oi Oi” to the various pinching and poking torments it all seemed just a bit lame and limp. I knew I was meant to be amused. Before that, John Longmuir sang Fenton’s aria well enough, but Lorina Gore’s number as Nanetta impersonating the queen of the fairies just didn’t quite get there – not just because of her but because of a bit of orchestral scrappiness. Magic, even pretend magic, can be tricky.

The title role was a great achievement for Warwick Fyfe. He has his own comic style.

Afterwards, I remarked to D that it was a pretty silly opera. D demurred. All Western operas, he thinks, are silly (he thinks Chinese operas are serious; sometimes too serious).

The assumption embedded in my remark was that tragic operas are not “silly.” I think what D had particularly in mind was the “fat lady sings” aspect of most Western operas – that is their manner of presentation, rather than, so much, their plots and any message that these carry.

To paraphrase the final fugue, it’s a joke. Isn’t that enough? In fact, I think there is a bit of a take-away message, and the key word is resilience. It’s true that when Falstaff dries himself out under the sun, a drink helps to restore him to that trilling feeling, but you know he’d get there anyway even without a drink, or at least you hope he will. That’s his charm.

And as Bardolfo, Kanen Breen got to wear a dress, yet again.

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