PREVIEW (HT – Peter Jacobi): ‘Falstaff’ is final opera for the season

Music Beat

‘Falstaff’ is final opera for the season

By Peter JacobiH-T Columnist
March 31, 2013

Ray Fellman, left, as Falstaff with Tasha Koontz as Alice, rehearse a scene from IU Opera Theater’s “Falstaff.”

It’s a Verdi month locally in a Verdi year internationally. Italy’s premier composer of opera, Giuseppe Verdi, was born 200 years ago, cause for celebrations on stages and recording studios far and wide.

Here, an April revival at IU Opera Theater of the composer’s last opera, “Falstaff,” and a performance of his Requiem Mass bring focus to what he contributed both to the history of music and to our pleasure whenever his works are repeated, revived, and received.

Would that, locally, we also celebrate the other illustrious fellow born 200 years ago, the giant of German opera, Richard Wagner, who rightfully is gaining considerable attention elsewhere on operatic and symphonic stages but, so far, has been neglected here during this, his bicentennial year.

Granted, student casting makes productions of his operas in full unlikely. Why not, however, scenes? Why not orchestral attention? Why not choral?

And while I’m at it, let me express hope for some Benjamin Britten; his centenary is under way.

But back to the deserving Verdi and, in this Sunday’s column, “Falstaff,” which comes to life on the stage of the Musical Arts Center the next two weekends.

It is an opera that might well not exist, save for the persuasive diplomacy of Arrigo Boito, the far younger composer who in 1889 urged Verdi, by then in his late 70s and happy as gentleman farmer, to consider another operatic project. Boito had served Verdi superbly as librettist for “Otello,” which triumphed two years earlier. He wanted the collaboration to continue.

Persuasion came in the form of a story line for an opera about Shakespeare’s Fat Knight.

Verdi read it and answered: “Excellent! Excellent! Before reading your sketch, I wanted to re-read the ‘Merry Wives,’ the two parts of ‘Henry IV,’ and ‘Henry V,’ and I can only repeat: Excellent, for one could not do better than you have done.”

In his response, Verdi began to make suggestions, then added, “this ‘Falstaff’.which two days ago was in the world of dreams” was beginning to be realized.

As would happen on a number of occasions in the years that followed, Verdi reconsidered his position.

“Have you ever thought of my enormous weight of years?” he wrote. “I know that in replying, you will exaggerate the robust state of my health. But even if it is as you say, you must agree that in taking on such a task, I may over-tax my strength. What if I could not stand the strain? What if I could not finish the music? Then you would have wasted time and trouble for nothing.”

There’s strategy in Boito’s answer: “I don’t think you will find writing a comic opera fatiguing. A tragedy makes its composer really suffer. His mind dwells on grief, and his nerves become unhealthily agitated. But the jests and laughter of comedy exhilarate both mind and body.”

“Amen! So be it!” was Verdi’s reaction. “We’ll write this ‘Falstaff’ then.”

The cajoling continued. The work progressed.

And 120 years ago, on Feb. 9, 1893, eight months and a day short of his 80th birthday, the completed “Falstaff” premiered at Milan’s La Scala. Verdi would later compose his Four Last Pieces, choral music of a sacred nature, but operatic output was at an end.

For IU Opera Theater, this about-to-open production is its seventh, and the first in 10 seasons. For the occasion, two visiting talents have been imported to guide the state of affairs.

Constantine Kitsopoulos will conduct. Robin Guarino will stage. He, music director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra in New York City and founding director of New Jersey’s Chatham Opera, is a returnee whose last previous opera assignment here was William Bolcom’s “A View from the Bridge” two seasons ago. She, distinguished chairwoman of Opera at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music whose directing assignments have included productions at the Metropolitan Opera, is making her local debut.

Both express enthusiasm about how rehearsals have been progressing, particularly how the singers have taken to the text, a particular difficulty.

“It’s very hard, complex,” says Kitsopoulos. “There’s so much more text by the square inch than in most operas. Boito outdid himself, and Verdi’s music requires that it all gets sung rapid fire.”

Guarino calls it “exciting to see how phenomenally the students have become at one with the text, while also learning the stagecraft and discovering that the characters they play are human beings, three-dimensionally Shakespearean, imperfect, some of them with foibles and regrets, qualities that Boito and Verdi captured so brilliantly.

“Verdi was a genius,” she continues. “The music and action in ‘Falstaff’ are so marvelously integrated. He’s captured Shakespeare’s time and period. Our job has been to allow the students to get into the greatness of the piece. Success comes when the spirit and energy of highly gifted performers, such as you have here, come in touch with great musical theater, which ‘Falstaff’ certainly is.”

Kitsopoulos puts it this way: “Sure, everyone has to sing the notes, and these singers do. The Philharmonic, in the pit, strikes the right notes, too. But the goal is to be as true to Verdi as we can. We’re not trying to make Falstaff a Mafioso or anything strange like that. This opera deserves traditional, intelligent treatment, honoring what Verdi and Boito created. How wonderful it is to have such a text, faithful to Shakespeare, and to have it translated into music with so many chromatic colors. I would hope the audience will recognize Verdi’s mastery and that it will be genuinely entertained. It should if we, as performers, remember that ‘Falstaff’ is great art and that art, not we, comes first.”

Reach Peter by sending an email to with “Jacobi” in the subject line.

If you go

WHAT AND WHO: Indiana University Opera Theater, to complete its 2012-13 season, presents Verdi’s “Falstaff,” featuring two alternating casts and the IU Philharmonic. Sets and costumes are by Robert O’Hearn. Constantine Kitsopoulos conducts. Robin Guarino stage directs.

WHERE: Musical Arts Center on the IU Bloomington campus.

WHEN: 8 p.m. April 5, 6, 12 and 13.

TICKETS: Opening night, April 5, general admission, $25 for adults, $12 for students. Other performances, reserved seating, $15-$38 for adults, $10-$27 for students. Available at the Musical Arts Center box office.

Show times

Tuesday evening at 8 in Auer Hall, the IU Wind Ensemble, conducted by Stephen Pratt, offers music of Fletcher, Grainger, Piston, Puts, Ellerby (Concerto for Euphonium and Wind Ensemble, with soloist Curtis Prichard, winner of Jacobs School Brass Concerto Competition), and Bloomington’s David Canfield (premiere of “Elevator Music,” featuring faculty alto saxophonist Otis Murphy). Free.

Wednesday evening at 8 in Auer, the IU Chamber Orchestra, conducted by guest Carl St. Clair, plays music of Hindemith (Kammermusik No. 1), Schubert (Symphony No. 5), and Hoffmeister (Viola Concerto, with Jacobs Viola Competition winner Laurent Grillet). Free.

Saturday evening at 8 in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, IU’s African American Arts Institute’s Dance Company, Iris Rosa director, presents its Spring Concert. Tickets (at Sunrise Box Office, 114 E. Kirkwood Ave.) $20 for adults, $10 for students and children.

Copyright: 2013


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