Verdi wrote Falstaff at the ripe old age of 77, and he brought to it a lifetime of stagecraft and a profound love of Shakespeare. He had already taken inspiration from Macbeth and Otello, and toyed with the idea of creating an opera based on King Lear, but he had never tried Shakespearean comedy. It was to be his final masterpiece.
Unusually for Verdi, the music drives the action along scarcely pausing for arias, but instead binding the words and music together in a tight-knit web.
“There’s no fat on the bone,” says Phillips. “It’s just effortless music-making.”
For a great piece of comic writing, you need a great comedian, and this production has one in Warwick Fyfe. He’s won fans as Mozart’s soft-hearted Papageno and guffaws as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, but Falstaff is his biggest challenge yet. Not least because he has to wear a fat suit and calf-enhancers, plus a full face of hair to look the part.
“Whenever they get the glue pot out I start cringing,” moans Fyfe of the lengthy transformation, in hair and make-up, from a forty-something Australian to an elderly, ruddy-nosed knight.
But it’s worth it when he appears on stage in all his grubby magnificence, ready to revel in Verdi’s glorious score. The jokes fly, the fairies dance and the music captures the emotions that words alone miss. Shakespeare would have loved it.
An Opera Conference co-production.