Falstaff: Meet Maestro Ari Pelto

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Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson (Sir John Falstaff). Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

By Kelly Maxwell

Before we even officially started our interview with Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto, he came into the room and, unprompted, jumped right into what makes this production of Falstaff such a please. “Coming in to rehearsal here is just a joy,” he said as he stopped by to chat between rehearsals. “I am so eager to get into rehearsal because the quality of the work, the people, and the atmosphere is so inspiring.” Fitting, then, that this is a show that encourages the audience to embrace laughter and joy above all else. Maestro Pelto went on to his favorite musical moments in Falstaff, how Verdi’s masterpiece is a true wonder to experience, and more.

Falstaff closes this weekend, and there are only two more opportunities—tonight and Sunday—to catch it before it’s gone! Act fast and don’t miss the final performances of the Opera Colorado 2017-2018 season. Tickets and more information available here.

It’s been 30 years since Opera Colorado last performed Falstaff. What makes this opera so special that you and General & Artistic Director Greg Carpenter wanted to bring it back to Denver?

I could go on for days and days because I think Falstaff is one of the most important gifts to humanity. It’s just such a masterpiece, but to me it’s also very touching that Verdi wrote all these dramatic operas—the most iconic dramatic operas, like La traviata, Otello, and Aida. Yet, at the age of nearly 80, he feels compelled to write a comedy. There’s something very moving about Falstaff being his last opera. It’s perfect and a real joy from the first note to the last fugue. The performers all love this piece so much and are dying to share it with the audience. Although it’s true that audiences don’t know Falstaff as well as many other operas, even regular operagoers often don’t have as intimate a relationship with Falstaff as they do with many of the other beloved operas. As performers, we have real love for this piece and we want to share it with as many people as possible. It’s a night of theater and music that is so generous, enriching, funny, and gorgeous; it’s really everything you could possibly want.

Soprano Susannah Biller (Nannetta) and tenor Mingjie Lei. Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

The fugue at the end stands out for so many reasons. Could you give us a little preview as to what to expect? Why is this piece so phenomenal?

One of the important things that Director David Edwards and I have talked about is the idea that this isn’t just a fugue tacked onto the end of an opera as an afterthought. It is the centerpiece of the whole opera. Verdi, who was sometimes criticized for not having enough classical structure in his composition, at the age of nearly 80, wrote the most complicated and classical structure of all: a fugue. This is one of the most complicated fugues ever written, performed with 18 voices, and all on the subject of “Life is a joke.” That message is not meant to be dismissive or accusatory, but rather it’s a gift to the audience. I think Verdi earned the right to say that to all of us. I think Verdi’s message is for all of us to take a long look at our lives, and not take ourselves so seriously. Taking that message and then weaving it into this absolutely perfect structured fugue, about three or minutes long, becomes one of the most intensely creative things ever written.

What are your thoughts on the Shakespearean elements in the show?

The combination of Boito (the librettist) and Verdi is equal to Shakespeare’s genius. How they managed to take the most inventive language that Shakespeare wrote and make it into the most inventive Italian is utterly remarkable. People might just have an image of a fat, obnoxious man who gets what’s coming to him when the Merry Wives of Windsor play a trick on him, but that’s not the story at all. The story is Falstaff’s role in the world and his task is to expose all our conceits. He is the salt in our stew, and although a great trick is played on him, he turns it around at the end and says, “Yes. I realize I’ve been an ass. But I’ve had you all take a good look at yourselves, haven’t I? Without me, you wouldn’t get this joke. You wouldn’t have had this chance to look around at yourselves and see that we’re all fallible and flawed; we’re all asses!” So, I think he’s a hero.

Baritone Olafur Sigurdarson (Sir John Falstaff), mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller (Dame Quickly), tenor Nathan Ward (Bardolfo), and bass-baritone Andrew Hiers (Pistola). Photo: Opera Colorado/Matthew Staver

How does the orchestra fit in? If we’ve got so many voices on stage, how does that relationship come together between the singers and the musicians in the pit?

That’s the key, that part right there. Verdi composed with such heart. A lot of the musical ideas are expressed almost entirely through the orchestra, with melodic and rhythmic things and so on, and the singers are reciting over the top of that and through that musical idea. Every moment of music is tied to every moment of text. Because there are so many little jokes and richness in the text, there’s equal richness in the orchestration. One could spend years uncovering all of the little details in the score. Each one of them serves to give richness to the storytelling and one couldn’t exist without the other.

Do you have a moment in Falstaff that stands out as your favorite?

There are endless moments, of course, but my favorite is one incredibly wonderful, very brief little moment: after Falstaff has been thrown into the river. He’s come out, bemoaning the evil of the world, and wondering how he ended up this poor, fat man. He’s sopping wet and cold, and he asks the host of the tavern, “Bring me out a bit of hot wine.” He takes a sip of it and Verdi describes the sound of the wine going into his gullet. Then he says, “Oh, what a nice thing it is to have a sip of wine.” Verdi writes this warming quality, just at the moment when Falstaff’s mood shifts. That musical moment is a magical moment. There are many others, but that’s one little moment that is just fabulous.

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