By David Dixon
Many operas that have been performed recently at the San Diego Civic Theatre haven’t been very happy tales. Stories such as “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly” are the opposite of uplifting experiences.
The San Diego Opera is taking a break from all the gloom with a comedy — Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff.”
An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the narrative follows the misadventures of the fat and optimistic knight, Sir John Falstaff, (Roberto de Candia).
During a wild evening at the Garter Inn in Windsor, England, a broke Falstaff can’t afford to pay his bill. Desperate for cash, he comes up with a plan to end his poverty. The schemer decides to woo two wealthy wives, Alice Ford (Ellie Dehn) and Meg Page (Kirstin Chavez). A series of absurd situations occur and continue when Ford and Page receive letters from Falstaff.
French storyteller, Olivier Tambosi, has directed Verdi’s piece several times since 1999. Tambosi loves returning to the narrative, because he considers it to be a rich experience.
“Each time, I discover new beautiful things that I missed the last time,” he said. “It’s like an onion. There are endless layers to the plot.”
Created initially by Shakespeare in “Henry IV: Part 1,” Falstaff has become a classic character. For Tambosi, the main reason that Falstaff continues to be famous is his believable humanity. Tambosi also feels that, even with such a breezy plot, everyone Falstaff encounters comes across as three-dimensional.
In a similar vein to other great operas, the reputation and fame of Verdi’s melodies and Arrigo Boito’s libretto grew over time. Although early performances in Milan and Europe were reasonably successful, Tambosi mentioned that “Falstaff” wasn’t initially considered a classic as the music is used primarily to move the plot along. In other words, it’s not the kind of opera where the entire experience can be appreciated merely by listening to a CD.
That unique aspect about Verdi’s style in “Falstaff” makes Tambosi appreciate the comedic farce even more. For him, this allows the piece to be smart, animated and dreamlike.
A foil to Falstaff is a friend to the wives, Dame Quickly (Marianne Cornetti). She helps Alice and Meg devise a complicated plan against the greedy Falstaff.
Both artists appreciate that Quickly and Falstaff are intellectual equals, and their complicated relationship leads to many humorous moments.
Cornetti has been featured in several operas from Verdi, including “Aida” and “Il Trovatore.” One of the interesting aspects of Cornetti’s portrayal is that the singer is singing lower notes than she has been used to throughout her career.
Even though she recently sang in a concert version in Spain, she will experience different challenges when performing on the Downtown stage.
“It’s really my first comedy role,” she said. “That’s not easy, because I have to focus more on timing when in a scene.”
While playing Quickly may test her skills, Cornetti is prepared to sing such a difficult role.
“You have to be right on the edge,” she said. “That requires a lot of courage.”
Helping Cornetti stay on track is Tambosi, who understands the differences working on a comedic opera compared to more heavy tragic epics.
“You can play dramatic moments differently in each performance,” he said. “In comedy, you can only be precise or wrong.”
It seems that Cornetti and Tambosi are true believers of the phrase “dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
The director and his stars are all determined to present a consistently funny night with no shortage of enjoyable music from Verdi. Expect an epically entertaining and cheerful misadventure.
“Falstaff” will be performed Feb. 18 through 26 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, located at 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. For tickets or more information, visit sdopera.org or call 619-232-7636.
—David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.