The ‘Falstaff’ Family

CHAUTAUQUA – The final opera of the 2013 Chautauqua season – albeit only the third performance and the second production of the sadly truncated season – will be performed Monday evening, at Norton Hall.

Having opened the season with the fierce, passionate and rather gloomy ”Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten, the company is rounding out the season with one of only two comedies ever to escape the pen of Giuseppe Verdi: ”Falstaff,” based principally on Shakespeare’s play ”The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Because of the scope and the artistic significance of the Romeo and Juliet Project at Chautauqua, we had to devote last week’s column, which would normally have been devoted to ”Falstaff,” to that great undertaking, so we’re a bit late with this material. The first performance that I planned on attending took place last evening. There will be another performance on Monday evening.

Let me go over the history and the plot of the opera, and then share with you the interviews I did with the conductor and a number of singers from the excellent cast of the production.

‘FALSTAFF’

The character Sir John Falstaff was created by Shakespeare for two contrasting purposes. In both plays about England’s King Henry IV, we learn that the King’s oldest son, the future Henry V, was a difficult and troubling young man, throughout his youth. He spent most of his time in the company of Sir John Falstaff, an old, overweight, dishonest and cowardly knight.

Because Sir John has such an inflated view of himself, and that self-image contrasts so much with the truth, he was an easy butt of jokes.

When his father dies and the young prince becomes king himself, he finds that responsibility forces him to mature. He coldly rebuffs Falstaff and the men with whom he has whiled away his youth, and dedicates himself to being the best king he can possibly be. Falstaff is funny, until his rejection by the man he thought was his friend makes him an object of pity.

It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed laughing at Falstaff so much that she told Shakespeare he should make another play which showed Sir John in love. The result was ”The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in which the old knight tries to pay his overdue bills by romancing two married women in the English city of Windsor, hoping to gain some of their husbands’ money. Falstaff tells his cronies that because the women are middle-class they will immediately accept the lovemaking of a knight, even if he isn’t, perhaps, the man he once was.

Alice Ford and Meg Page are friends, they soon learn that he hasn’t even taken the trouble to write original love letters to them, but has sent two copies of the same letter. They decide it will be fun to assemble a group made up of their friends, including Alice’s daughter, and plot some revenge.

The two women manage to trick the old knight into one great humiliation. Then, since his enormous pride doesn’t allow him to accept that he has been the butt of a joke, they get him to commit himself to a second adventure, which results in his second humiliation.

For centuries, other writers have tried to find secret messages in Shakespeare’s plays and other writings. Some say that the character of Falstaff was originally called ”John Oldcastle,” who was a real military leader during the reign of Henry V. Whenever Falstaff’s name appears in one of the Bard’s plays, the usual, flowing iambic rhythm is upset, which convinces some that there was originally a different name there. Others say that by upsetting his rhythmic pattern, Shakespeare was indicating that Falstaff was a bumbler, apt to upset the flow of anything in which he became associated.

The real Sir John was a Lollard, a religious group whose beliefs were branded heresy by the Church. Some say that making him a buffoon was a declaration of Catholic beliefs by the bard. Others say that a direct descendant of Oldcastle was Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham, who was a powerful official in the English government at the time, and that Falstaff’s low character was an assault by the playwright on that official. The fact that one character in the play creates a false identity and calls himself ”Brooke” enhances that argument.

When I took a course on Shakespeare in England, many years back, the professor suggested that in the 16th Century, when men typically wore tight-fitting hose, it was common that men sewed a roll of tightly twisted cloth into their hose, to appear better equipped than nature might have provided. This roll of deceiving cloth was called ”a false staff.” That’s another possible explanation for the name.

In 1893, composer Verdi was entering his ninth decade of life. He had composed 26 operas, many of which were based on Shakespearean plots, including ”Othello” and ”Macbeth.” He announced that he had spent his life creating grand and dramatic opera, and he wanted to indulge himself by writing something which was light and funny. He convinced his frequent librettist, Arrigo Boito, to modify Shakespeare’s play into a libretto, to which he composed a mature and brilliant score which would prove to be his last opera.

The result is an opera that, rather than deal with the passions of life, the building up to a crescendo and providing a heartbreaking aria for a singer, just rolls along with one melody crashing headlong into another. It’s suitable for the entire family.

THE MAESTRO

Conducting the performances of ”Falstaff” at Chautauqua Opera will be Maestro James Meena. He described the opera’s score as ”Like Rossini, only with more orchestra.”

Meena said that Falstaff has always been a favorite of his because, as in the operas of Rossini, there is no anger, no hatred and nothing worse than a bit of well-earned embarrassment.

‘There is one tragic moment, when Alice Ford’s husband encounters her plot to trick Falstaff, and he believes that she is really cheating on him, but beyond that one aria, it’s all a romp,” he said. ”This score is every bit as wonderful, musically, as Verdi’s more popular creations, such as ‘La Traviata,’ or ‘Aida,’ but the audience is less likely to leave a performance humming one musical melody, because in ‘Falstaff’ Verdi paints his stage picture with melodies upon melodies, and there is no big spotlight moment to focus our attention on one of them.”

Meena is conducting his sixth production with the Chautauqua Opera Company, and has conducted the Chautauqua Symphony for concerts featuring young singers from the opera company in the Amphitheater.

”Chautauqua doesn’t have the budget that many other companies have, and the rehearsal period is short and forces us to work long, intense days, but the entire company has such a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere,” Meena said. “I enjoy working here. Add in the natural beauty of the place, and it’s an easy choice.”

The conductor added that from the director of the Chautauqua Company, Jay Lesenger, to the extras performing on stage, there is an atmosphere of respect and focus which works hard to exclude tantrums and scenes which aren’t part of the operas.

Meena first heard opera in his early teens, when his older sister acquired a recording of Puccini’s opera ”La Boheme.”

”I read the story of the opera, and it was interesting, but when she played the recording, the music made the story come to life, and made me feel what was happening to the characters.” He said he knew he wanted to be associated with the art form for the rest of his life.

I asked if he could conduct any opera at any theater in the world, where would he pick? Meena said he would like to conduct almost anything at the opera house in Vienna, because he would love to conduct the famed Vienna Philharmonic. We can hear him conduct the CSO on Monday evening, in Norton Hall.

ALICE FORD

The central role of Alice Ford will be sung Monday evening by soprano Amy Burton. Slender, blonde and very attractive, Ms. Burton laughs when asked what people say when they are introduced to her for the first time and find out she is an opera singer.

”For a long time,” she said, ”People used to say ‘You can’t be an opera singer. You’re not big enough.’ One of the good results of opera’s spread into high definition broadcasts and popular performances is that people no longer have inaccurate ideas about who we are, who sings opera and what we do. I rarely get that response any more.”

This production is her first performance at Chautauqua, although she has sung the roles of both Alice and her daughter many times in other locations.

”Jay has invited me to sing with the company several times in the past, but I have had other commitments,” she said. “This year, I was seated beside him at a dinner, and he mentioned that he was putting together a production of ‘Falstaff,’ and it turned out that we could work it out for me to participate.”

A native of New York City, the soprano said that opera has always been part of her life. Her parents were both doctors, and took her frequently to performances, especially at New York City Opera.

”I won’t say they were thrilled, when I told them I planned to make a career of it, because it can be a difficult lifestyle and isn’t always profitable, but they have always loved the opera and made it part of our lives,” Burton said.

And what convinced her to make that announcement to her parents?

”I knew I wanted to focus my life on music,” she said. ”For a while, I played guitar and composed popular songs, and I loved performing popular music in cabaret settings. My sophomore year in college, I was discussing my uncertainty with my voice teacher, and she advised me to take the entire next summer off from opera, and not to even practice or use my operatic voice. I sang my songs in various places and even made one recording. And, when the summer was over, I couldn’t wait to get back into operatic shape, and here I am.”

Burton has a worldwide career, which has seen her headline opera productions in Tokyo, Rome, Jerusalem, Paris, Barcelona and at opera companies in all the major U.S. cities. She is married to composer John Musto, and has inspired his composition of a number of operas.

”’Falstaff’ is an opera which lends itself to audiences who aren’t experienced opera goers,” the soprano said. ”Usually, listeners enjoy operas more if they read up on the plot and understand what to expect in advance. It certainly would be nice if they glance over a summary of the plot, but it’s sung in English and the translation we’re using is especially easy to understand. People could just watch this performance and have fun. And once the opera bug bites, many people want to come back and back.”

You have a chance to find out if you’re one of those people, Monday evening.

FALSTAFF

The bass-baritone who will be singing the title role of ”Falstaff” is Pittsburgh native Kevin Glavin. Regular audience members at Chautauqua will remember him as the rich man who was seduced and then abandoned by Manon in last year’s production of ”Manon Lescaut.” Sadly, Glavin wasn’t available to talk with us this year. Instead, we talked with Michael Chioldi, with whom we also spoke last season in his role in ”Manon Lescaut.”

Chioldi is one of the most admired baritones in the profession, having won raves around the world for both his huge singing instrument and his sensitive acting. My colleague Ruth Bingham, in reviewing a recent performance of his in Honolulu, as Baron Scarpia, the villain of the opera ”Tosca,” admitted that despite her extensive experience of watching operas she wanted to shout ”Boo” at his every appearance. Not because she didn’t admire his performance, which she described as ”Brilliantly cast, with a rich, clear, darkly powerful voice,” but because his acting was so powerful, he made his evil character very real to his audience.

Chioldi has had early success that has continued into a career admired around the world. He received a graduate degree in music at Yale at age 21, then went on to apprentice at Santa Fe, then at Houston Grand Opera, then in the famed Merola Opera Program of the San Francisco Opera Company. At age 25, he won the national competition of the Metropolitan Opera Association, which entitles the winner to a contract with the Met, which includes performing minor roles and understudying some of the more grand roles.

”Generally, understudies just stay home, to be near the phone, or stay around town, in case they’re needed, but nothing happens,” he said. “My phone rang, and I was told that in three hours I had to be in make up and costume and be ready to go on stage in a production of ‘Andrea Chenier,’ with Luciano Pavarotti.”

Unlike most singers who have periods in which they must work as waiters or other jobs to pay the bills between singing opportunities, Chioldi has never been unemployed as a singer since his Met debut.

This is the baritone’s seventh performance headlining a Chautauqua Opera production within the past 10 years, and we have overheard a rumor that when he leaves Chautauqua he’s going on to an even larger production which we can’t share with you now.

”My niece has never heard me sing on stage, and she’s coming to Chautauqua to hear this production, which makes it very special for me,” said the proud uncle.

Does he have a dream role, in a dream site?

”I’d love to sing ‘Tosca’ at the La Scala Opera House, in Milan. Scarpia is my favorite role,” he answered.

QUICKLY

Not all of the fun in the plot of ”Falstaff” comes from the title character. Another source of fun is Mistress Quickly, a fellow-plotter with the Merry Wives, who is most determined that the bluff Sir John gets his just desserts. This week, the role of Quickly is being sung by Jennifer Roderer.

The tall and attractive mezzo soprano stays close to her cell phone during the interview because her young daughter is with her at Chautauqua and she is concerned that she is safe during a swimming excursion to the lake.

”Like many singers, I drifted into this art from musical theater,” she told me. ”I studied piano as a child, and I enjoyed that, but my parents weren’t opera goers and I wasn’t exposed to it in school.”

When she was 16, she was cast in a company performing the musical ”Godspell,” and she was given a major solo to sing.

”I decided I ought to go to a singing teacher, to be sure I sang the role right,” she said. “She advised me that I have a large and flexible instrument, and I ought to consider singing more challenging material. To be truthful, when I first started serious study, I just thought it was a great way to be on stage and wear costumes and be in the spotlight. Soon I realized how much I was able to accomplish, and it’s been full steam ahead every since.”

How do strangers react when she’s introduced as an opera singer?

”They usually act as though they don’t believe me, or they think I sing in amateur theatricals or in the shower,” she said. ”Sometimes they ask if I can break a glass with my voice. I have to tell them, it isn’t volume or vocal power that breaks glasses, it’s the ability to hit the exact pitch at which the glass vibrates. Once I learned that, it didn’t seem worth trying.”

Anyone who doubts her credentials can read reviews in some of the biggest publications in the world, praising her ”claret colored mezzo” and her ”blazing upper extensions” mixed with ”fierce dramatic instincts.” This entire cast is first-rate. It’s going to be a spectacular evening of opera.

Winks

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