‘Every fibre of the heart trills, and the joyous air quivers to the trill…’
What makes an opera a comic opera? Possibly the fact that everyone involved is constantly disguising themselves in order to vex other people, exact revenge, get hold of the right marriage partner or lay their hands on somebody else’s money? In German this kind of piece is usually called a ‘Verwechslungskomödie’ (comedy of mistaken identity), in English a comedy of errors, which is much more appropriate, especially in the case of Shakespeare, whose play The Merry Wives of Windsor served as the main inspiration for Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera. A ‘comedy of errors and mistakes’ — as a genre description that would perhaps hit the nerve of the Falstaff plot where it hurts most: title figure, victims and adversaries rigging themselves up in disguises in backrooms and front gardens is a sure sign that behind the chaos of mistaken identities yawns an abyss of human inadequacy. All the plot strands go back to this: too fat, too poor, too lovestruck, too jealous, too gullible, too feeble, too timid. To put it another way: in his Falstaff Verdi presents a panopticon of helplessness, an action-packed standstill of body and spirit culminating in one of the most extraordinary finales in the history of opera. While Verdi’s grandiose music sets the vocal cords vibrating wildly at the Garter Inn, the trains of thought of most of those present remain peculiarly sluggish and at most go leadenly round and round in slow motion. The world in which Shakespeare and Verdi unleash their comedies is ponderous and backward. At times one wishes that a voice would interrupt the action from the depths of the wings to prevent further abstruse complications. But you only get that on film sets, when after someone yells ‘Cut!’ the cameras are realigned, scenes rewritten and new takes shot. Opera is inflexible in this respect and relentlessly demands the (more or less convincing) resolution of all intrigues, reconciliations and wishful thinkings.
Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock’s staging of the exuberant Falstaff score marks the continuation of two long-ongoing stories: on the one hand this is their seventh joint project at the Salzburg Festival, and on the other it resumes their artistic exploration of Verdi’s works that began with Luisa Miller at the Frankfurt Opera, followed by productions at the Opéra Garnier in Paris (La traviata) and at Theater Basel (Lo stimolatore cardiaco). It is incidentally no secret that Marthaler and Viebrock once brought back from a trip to Italy a small chocolate bust of Verdi which has survived in excellent condition to this day. Just a few, extremely endearing cracks mark the so-called ravages of time. The bust stands under a small glass dome, impassively awaiting what is to come. But if you take it out and examine it closely, you’ll see that this Verdi is smiling. It’s a very subtle smile, almost as if he had the final lines of his last opera in mind:
pokes fun at the other.
But he who laughs last,
That perhaps someone else could end up having the last laugh — namely the individual who samples the composer’s bust despite the evident antiquity of the chocolate — is part of the irony of fate for which Verdi had a passionate and lifelong enthusiasm. So he would probably have approved if everything turned out quite differently once again. Including one’s own errors.
Translation: Sophie Kidd