Tragedy seems to age better than comedy. The works of Aeschylus have been more influential than those of Aristophanes, and Shakespeare’s darker plays are far more popular than his pure comedies. This same propensity for gloomy subjects can also be seen in the opera world. With notable exceptions in the cases of Mozart and Rossini, the composers whose works are most frequently performed today tend to be better known for their tragedies than their lighter works: think of Puccini, Wagner, Bizet. This is especially true of Verdi: over the course of his long career, he only composed two non-tragic works, although comic elements do interleave some others (notably Rigoletto). The second of these true comedies, Falstaff, was written when he was almost eighty years old, and yet it possesses a miraculous freshness. Some have claimed it to be his masterpiece, and when performed with the verve and comic brio we witnessed at the Sydney Opera House last night, I’m almost inclined to agree.

Warwick Fyfe as Falstaff © Branco Gaica
Warwick Fyfe as Falstaff
© Branco Gaica

This Opera Australia production has been running since 1995, but for this first-time viewer, it still retained its freshness. The production design was quite simply stunning: realistic two-story sets, perfect for the farcical interactions of this piece, were built on a rotating central platform, allowing for slick transitions between the scenes. The move from the Garter Inn (bathed in red light) to the Market Place (overwhelmingly green coloured) in Act I was breathtaking, accomplished during the few bars of the orchestral coda to the first scene. While the positioning of characters in different parts and levels of the stage in scene 2 was brilliantly conceived, it unfortunately led to an imbalance in the concluding ensemble, where the down-stage female group dominated at the expense of the men: sadly, the brilliant effect of the cross-rhythms (men singing in quadruple time, the women in triple) was rather lost. Only in Act III scene 2 did verisimilitude give way to suggestion: a (somewhat ill-fitting) backcloth of tree shapes and plenty of dry ice created the outdoors feel (though why not include a model of Herne’s Oak, to which Falstaff gestures at one point?)

The humour that Verdi’s librettist, Boito, extracted from Shakespeare was brilliantly realised in the composer’s music, but here it was augmented by some extra side-splitting business: Falstaff and Ford getting stuck together in the doorway in Act II after their previous polite deferrals; Bardolph searching Falstaff’s person rather than just his purse when looking for money; the frequent belly-shaking that accompanied the trills when characters were mocking the fat knight. Particularly brilliant was the opening of Act III: instead of the curtain rising on a disgruntled Falstaff in the inn, the clothes basket floated to the side of the building, and the buffeted knight emerged with a hilarious lack of dignity. The chorus, most of whose singing takes place in the final scene, appeared earlier as extras and performed a variety of slow-motion and stop-motion effects to help with the comedy and the dramatic pacing.

The singing varied between the outstanding and the ordinary. Top marks to Warwick Fyfe in the title role, who steered a nice course between buffoonery and credibility, and when necessary projected magnificently over the hullabaloo. Kanen Breen stole scene after scene as Bardolph, a part which allowed his gifts for comedy free rein, and he easily outshone his fellow servitor, Jud Arthur’s Pistol. Surprisingly, their brief a capella moments together (the Amen in Act I, the opening of Act II) were rather rough in terms of pitching. Dominica Matthews was also outstanding, and her rich, creamy contralto sound in Act II, scene 1 particularly delicious. Andrew Jones was impressive as the jealous Ford, and his Act II solo was appropriately intense (it’s about the only such moment in the score). His on-stage wife, Amelia Farrugia sparkled as ever in her top register. John Longmuir (Fenton) was marginally the better of the two young lovers, and while Lorina Gore brought plenty of coquettishness to the role of Nannetta, she failed to wow me in the gorgeous ‘fairy queen’ aria in the last scene. Jacqueline Dark was fine in the smaller role of Mrs. Meg Page, while Graeme Macfarlane was an underwhelming Dr. Caius.

The orchestral part in Falstaff is absolutely crucial to keeping the comedy buoyant, something which the players under Antony Walker managed only intermittently. Not everything was perfectly coordinated with the stage: for instance, the moment where Falstaff is accompanied by bassoons took a while to lock in. Kudos to the players for keeping going when the lights in the pit went out in Act II. It took a lot longer for the surtitles to be restored, and first-time viewers would have been in the dark as to why Ford was giving Falstaff money. The laughter fell off noticeably at this point, demonstrating that visual gags are no substitute for the verbal humour. On the matter of surtitles more generally, they could do with being cued more carefully to the action: on a few occasions, the translated punch-line was visible well before the singers got to it. Moreover, the gag about not trusting one’s beer to a German was left in, but similar references to Turks and Dutchmen were censored on the screen – why the selective political correctness? But quibbles aside, this was an evening when we had that somewhat rare pleasure of laughing at opera – for the right reasons.