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?
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world