Opera Australia's Falstaff is a tour de force for a larger-than-life Warwick Fyfe, whose commanding presence has come to epitomise the portly knight, Sir John Falstaff. While Verdi did say that “there are many characters in Falstaff and not one is secondary”, he obviously hadn’t experienced a Warwick Fyfe. He is indispensable to this production.

Warwick Fyfe (Falstaff) and Jane Ede (Alice Ford) © Jeff Busby
Warwick Fyfe (Falstaff) and Jane Ede (Alice Ford)
© Jeff Busby

Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, premiered when he had turned 80, has a brilliant libretto by Arrigo Boito. Verdi and Boito had combined earlier to create Otello (another masterful adaptation of work by Shakespeare) and these works are considered two of the best operas of his long career. Boito had the insight to distil the essence of Shakespeare, creating engaging narratives of flawed men. Boito wrote Falstaff, adapted from The Merry Wives of Windsor with bits from the two Henry IVs, in an archaic form of Italian to point to the 14th-century Tuscan source of some of Shakespeare’s material.

Iain Aitken’s sets for this comic opera masterpiece are extremely clever. There’s a Tudor inn with Falstaff’s bedroom upstairs and a rough rear wall where Falstaff’s wicker basket ends up; a market place with Ford’s Fruit, Page’s Poultry and Fenton’s Fish shops at ground level with Dr Caius’ Apothecary’ above; a two-level interior of Ford’s house; and a bewitchingly simple Windsor Park. The elaborate costumes of Tracey Grant Lord provide brilliance. Each scene has its own colour: shades of red for the Garter Inn costumes; green and blue hues for the market square; yellows, golds and buffs for the Ford House (even the dirty laundry, sheets, ‘smalls’ and the flowers Falstaff snatches out a vase are yellow); and, finally, blacks, then white for fairies and red for the demons in Windsor Park.

Each role is distinctive. Verdi wrote that, “as one sprinkles sugar on a tart”, he would like “to sprinkle the whole comedy with that happy love [between Nannetta and Fenton] without concentrating it at any one point”. This production delivers sugar sprinkles in spades, having the lovers pop up for a furtive kiss in many surprising situations. Taryn Fiebig and Jonathan Abernethy are sweet and fresh in these roles, their diction clear, their charm contagious. They provide a refreshingly sweet breath of normality.

Dominica Matthews’ Miss Quickly is a gem – with her erect stance and prim expressions she is a fussy busybody, eager to be included in the intimacy of the other three women (Alice, Meg and Nannetta). She makes the most of her big scene in Falstaff’s bedroom. Her beautifully exaggerated Reverenza” greeting lets us know that under her veneer of propriety she is ready for a little flirting, sitting alongside him on his bed, but soon discovers that Falstaff has more in mind than she has bargained for. Her retreat, with dignity barely intact, is masterfully done. Alice Ford and Meg Page (Jane Ede and Jacqueline Dark) are played as forceful, competent, scheming women with strong voices. Ede, in particular, commands her rich, clear soprano voice to demand authority or invite conspiracy.

Bardolph (Kanen Breen) and Pistol (Jud Arthur) are delightful clowns who cheerfully enjoy their roles – singing and acting extraordinarily well, piling comedy on already comic roles. Whining Doctor Caius, who couldn’t win a trick, could, however, sing well. Graeme Macfarlane’s tenor was confident and strong, underscoring a man who just would not give up. Ford (Michael Honeyman) was masterful, perhaps best when disguised as Signor Fontana calling on Falstaff at the Garter Inn, only to be shocked to find Falstaff already, apparently, plotting to seduce his wife.

Warwick Fyfe (Falstaff) and Jane Ede (Alice Ford) © Jeff Busby
Warwick Fyfe (Falstaff) and Jane Ede (Alice Ford)
© Jeff Busby

This is an extremely fast-moving ensemble opera. It starts at a rollicking pace and the music rushes seamlessly on. Some tunes last only seconds; the poor surtitle projectionist had trouble keeping up. The playing of Orchestra Victoria under Cristian Badea (who is next scheduled to conduct Dutchman and Parsifal in Budapest – quite a change of pace) seemed relegated to the background, so frenetic and energetic was the singing. The orchestra did register some comical accompaniments, such as the clanging of coins in the money bag Ford (Fontana) gave to Falstaff and the bouncing of the laundry basket as Falstaff was dragged to the window, as well as many expressive moments.

The remarkable Act II contretemps, which has the four women (Alice, Meg, Nanetta and Quickly, sitting at a courtyard table) singing in 6/8 time, joined by the four men (Bardolph, Pistol, Ford and Caius) in the room upstairs and Fenton next door singing in 4/4 time, was remarkably well done. Although they weren’t perfectly in time with each other, the effect was impressive and inspiring.

This is a well-crafted comical production with an enduring richness. It is a credit to Opera Australia, and especially a credit to Warwick Fyfe – an amazing Falstaff.

***11