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Falstaff shows Verdi can be funny – Bryn Terfel has the audience in stitches

This production at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall became more of a one-man show than its composer perhaps intended.

On 5 September 1840, a pivotal and traumatic moment in Giuseppe Verdi’s career occurred. His new opera, a royal farce called Un Giorno di Regno, premiered that evening at Milan’s La Scala opera house and was hissed offstage by the angry crowd. The composer was shaken by the reaction: he almost quit opera altogether and actually did stop trying to write comedies. Over the next 40 years, he was to create some of the world’s most memorable and enduringly popular operas – Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, to name just a few – but they were all tragedies. Being funny, Verdi was convinced, was not something that he could do.

Then, in 1889, although 75 years old and retired from full-time work, he finally consented to have another go. His lifelong love of Shakespeare and an outstanding libretto by his long-time collaborator Arrigo Boito lured him into working on one last opera, a comedy based on the travails of that beloved overweight knight from Henry VI Parts I and II and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff premiered at La Scala in 1893 to standing ovations and instant Europe-wide acclaim. The grand old man of Italian opera could write comedy, after all.

Falstaff is funny, too – the laughs aren’t just knowing chuckles but proper giggles. Where else would you get to see a world-renowned bass-baritone sing a beautiful aria in praise of his own massive belly, which he considers to be the source of his potent sexuality? The concept of an ode to flab is pretty amusing, but when the Welsh opera superstar Bryn Terfel returned to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to give it his best heft (24 November), the audience was in stitches. There was even a bit of homegrown humour: when a soon-to-be-cuckolded husband brings Falstaff a “barrel of Cypriot wine”, it came in the form of a Waitrose wine carrier. The audience howled. It’s a long-running point of contention that the middle classes’ beloved supermarket has yet to open a branch in Liverpool.

Terfel has been honing his Falstaff for years, performing it all over the world. His tall stature helps with the characterisation, and even for this semi-staged production he wore a beautifully convex prosthetic stomach under his louche, quilted dressing gown. It’s his voice, though, that really creates the character – robust and strident yet somehow slightly vulnerable. In Terfel’s performance, there’s a sense that Falstaff is only calling himself fat to pre-empt other, meaner jokes about his size.

The opera’s plot mostly follows the action of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives, with Falstaff attempting to seduce two married women in order to gain access to their husbands’ money to pay his endless bar tab, and the women in turn getting their revenge with a dose of humiliation for the hapless knight. The set pieces were carried off well, and a video-screen backdrop assisted in the more technically difficult moments, such as when Falstaff is tipped out of a laundry basket into the Thames. Yet the disparity in the skill level of the singers in this production (a number of the smaller roles were filled by early-career soloists from Liverpool’s European Opera Centre) was a hindrance – it’s hard to appreciate an ensemble piece when some of the group aren’t up to scratch.

As a result, it became more of a one-man show than Verdi perhaps intended – the story of the relationship between Sir John Falstaff and his own body. Even the extensive masque scene in Act III, in which Terfel appears “disguised” as Herne the Hunter with a headdress made of two spatulas attached to a deerstalker for antlers, revolves around whether the fairies can “prick” him, reducing both his inflated pride and his stomach to a more acceptable size.

When things are going well for Falstaff, he celebrates his size as a mark of virility, but when the odds are against him, suddenly he’s too fat and too old. When others want to insult him, they call him “king of paunches” and “mountain of obesity”, but as he wisely observes, they would not want him to disappear into nothingness. Without him, who would they make jokes about? 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.