By Kelly Maxwell
A casual survey of the Falstaff cast regarding director David Edwards, gathered around the water cooler during a rehearsal break, brings up three things: his dry British humor, the incredible scope of his knowledge, and his uncompromising pursuit of authenticity. They’re in awe of his dramaturgical approach to directing opera and the way he can unpack a scene or specific phrase with buckets of information, in pursuit of a higher truth (and a laugh). Watching him in action, you see that he has a superhuman understanding of both the Shakespeare source material and Boito’s libretto. But more than anything else, he understands that Falstaff’s message should be accompanied by laughter—and a lot of it.
Opera Colorado’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff is still in rehearsal, but with the May 5th Opening Night fast approaching, the rehearsal hall and offices of the new Opera Colorado Opera Center are buzzing with laughter, excitement, and anticipation. Opera Colorado audiences last saw Falstaff three decades ago; for today’s audience, this is an incredible opportunity to see a comedic masterwork that is too often overlooked. Don’t miss your chance to see Verdi’s final opera! Tickets available here.
From an Englishman’s point of view, can you talk to us a little bit about the Shakespeare plays that Falstaff draws inspiration from?
Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist for Falstaff, took his inspiration from three Shakespeare plays: Henry IV, parts One and Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The character Falstaff is common to all three plays, but he’s a very different character in each of them. Some people have questioned the continuity and dramatic coherence of the character. But I think what Boito made is one very full—no pun intended—and very rounded figure of Falstaff. He very cleverly drew from different lines and parts of the Falstaff story in order to create Verdi’s chief…can we call him a “hero”? I think he is a hero. Yes, he’s overblown, pompous, drinks too much, and overindulges, but he’s really got a heart of gold. He’s a bit of a rascal and there’s a lot of mischief about him, but as he says to us at the end of the opera, “You need someone like me in society. I’m the spice in the stew. I’m the salt that goes on the meat of everyday life, and actually, I’m a good thing.” And I agree with him.
For all his faults and unacceptability in his behavior, the man’s spirit is something we should all celebrate. The character Falstaff in the Henry plays is very much the old soldier. He lives in pubs and taverns and for a major part of those plays, he’s best buddies with the prince, who will later become Henry V. And of course when Henry ascends to the throne, he disowns Falstaff. It’s a necessary, but very sad, thing in itself; Falstaff reveals his cowardice, his deviousness, and his opportunism. He’s a character with whom the audience of Shakespeare’s day clearly identified with, and as the story goes, so did Queen Elizabeth I. There’s no firm proof to support this, but the story goes that Queen Elizabeth commanded a play to be written to show Falstaff in love. Many people believe that this was the instigation for Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor. He apparently did so in quite a short time, probably for the benefit of a very special royal occasion at Windsor Castle.
Of course, The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of Shakespeare’s history plays; it doesn’t deal with the Civil War in England or with military people or royalty. It’s dealing with the middle class. These are people that Shakespeare himself would have known. He’s writing about people of his own class and whose behavior he’s observed. He’s satirizing middle class people with servants, in a small merchant class town. They can get to know each other far too well. They’re all in each other’s pocket, know each other’s business, and it’s all a very gossipy hot house. Of course, Falstaff comes barging in and causes an immense amount of disruption. He’s a catalyst forcing society to look at itself and to recognize how their behavior could be improved.
Why would you say taking those themes to the stage today is important? When it comes to Falstaff, what resonates the most with modern audiences?
The piece offers up a mirror to today’s audiences, just as it did when Verdi wrote it, and just as it did when Shakespeare wrote his plays. Many of us live in societies not dissimilar to that of the Merry Wives in Windsor. Windsor today is still a very small town. I think it reflects the way a lot of our small social groups tend to get a little bit self-protective, a bit nosy, and a bit too turned in on themselves. We’re not doing a staging in modern dress, but we could easily put this piece into the modern era. There’s a message in the opera, coming at the end in the fugue. Falstaff leads the whole company in telling us that man is born a fool, we’re all deceived about who we are, and we’re all taking ourselves too seriously. He tells us we need to lighten up, because the man who laughs last laughs best. It’s quite unique in operatic literature for a piece to end with this musical form, with a fugue, and with the message, “We hope you’ve had a good time, maybe you should think about what you’ve been looking at, and just have a look at yourselves.”
It breaks the fourth wall.
It does, very deliberately. And of course, it’s also a great celebratory piece of music. It’s one of the most uplifting endings to an opera that I know. I find this remarkable because for 60 years of his operatic life, Verdi had been writing tragedies. He wrote one comedy right at the start of his career, Un giorno di regno, but since then, he wrote dozens of tragedies, and finally, in his late 70s, he came up with this great comic masterpiece. I think it’s the most extraordinary and life-affirming gesture from him. Part of me feels like he’s looking back over his long career as an opera composer and saying, “You know what I’ve learned? I’ve learned that you need to laugh. We mustn’t take ourselves too seriously. This is what I’d like to leave as my legacy to the world.” We were talking with the cast about this and I would like our production to be a generous gift to the audience, to help them celebrate this extraordinary piece.
Speaking of the cast, I know you’re early in the rehearsal process, but do you have any thoughts on working with this group? What are you excited about?
I’m excited about the singing because we have some fabulous voices in this cast. I’m excited about the fact that everyone is very bright, receptive, and keen to make this a fun show. Musically and dramatically, I think we have a really superb team of professionals here. Yes, you’re right, we’ve only had a few days of rehearsal, but we’re already having lots of laughs. I hope that’s a good sign. If we’re laughing in rehearsal, then (hopefully) the audience will be laughing when they come to watch us. That’s what it’s all about. We are in the entertainment business after all, and for all the social observations, it’s about having some fantastic music sung brilliantly and giving the audience a good time.
And what’s it like working with Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto? How does the relationship between director and conductor go when you’re mounting a piece like this?
It’s both a very simple thing and a very complex thing because Ari and I have been working together for over 15 years. We’ve known each other for a very long time and we’ve done lots of shows together. I’m fortunate to say that we kind of think rather alike and we’re interested in the same things. He’s very interested in the drama and the acting, I’m very interested in the music, and at the end of the day, he conducts and I direct. In between, there’s a lot of crossover between us. We share ideas, ask each other questions, and we can chew it over. So, it’s a very close working relationship, and the reality is that we sit together in all the rehearsals, and it’s as if we’re a unit. We’re a team, rather than being the isolated maestro and stage director. The Italian word simpatico comes to mind—thinking along the same lines and close to one’s own thoughts. I’m very lucky.
How did you become an operatic stage director? What was your trajectory to get to this point?
I started as an assistant stage manager with the Royal Opera House in London, and then I went on to become an assistant director at Glyndebourne, and then again at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. From there I went freelance and it has been a progression. It’s not something one can predict will go in any particular direction. I’ve been very fortunate to do plays and musicals, as well as opera. I do a lot of semi-staged performances now with symphony orchestras. I write and present programs, teach young artists, and do a variety of work. It’s almost true to say I never know what’s coming next. It’s a very unpredictable life, but I hope I’ve acquired a little bit of experience along the way that I can pass on to other people.
Did you ever want to be anything else?
I have a secret yearning to sing the title role in Rigoletto. But that’s never going to happen. A very long time ago, when I was in high school, I wanted to be a lawyer, a barrister. I think what appealed to me about that was the theatricality of the courtroom. I was intrigued by the drama. I was very naive at the time, and I didn’t know how deeply complex and difficult the role of an attorney can be. So, that was my ambition when I was about 17 or 18. Then I went to university at Cambridge and I started to realize how hard lawyers had to work. I went off the idea and started doing a little bit of acting and directing at the student theaters. That is what turned me in the theatrical direction. I guess I’ve never looked back.
Falstaff is perhaps overshadowed by Verdi’s many other masterpieces, which is a shame because it’s brilliant in its own right. What would you say to someone still considering whether to attend?
I would say that Falstaff is probably one of the most approachable pieces in the opera repertoire. It’s a comedy that’s fun to watch and we’re doing some very visual stuff. There are titles to help you if you’re worried about understanding the language. But I would hope that you could come and give this a try because it’s a great story about people and a larger-than-life character. Falstaff intrudes into other people’s lives, makes them look at themselves, but he inspires them as well. There’s a great humor, generosity, and humanity to the piece. I sincerely think you’ll come out of the opera house feeling a warm glow of humanity. It’s not a long evening or a difficult evening. I seriously would recommend this as a first opera to anyone who’s nervous about this art form. Come and give it a go!