After yet another unfortunate episode, Don Quixote lamented:
Here I am with my name in the history books, a famous man of arms, courteous in my conduct, respected by princes, sought after by damsels, and just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, I find myself this morning, as a climax to it all, trodden under foot, battered and kicked by a herd of filthy animals.
We never lose that sense of wonder with Don Quixote. He was quite mad, but he tells us more about ourselves than people who are sane and sealed. The people of Spain treat him as a holy father, and that is not something that we get from the English and Shakespeare’s great character, Sir John Falstaff, the leering, lying, cowardly, and ultimately ridiculous drunk.
Verdi wrote his last opera about Falstaff. Opera is nothing if not Italian, and so is Verdi, so watching Verdi on Falstaff is like watching a French ballet of Don Quixote. The two great characters in the literature of the West are brought up for us on another artistic plane. By and large Don Quixote may represent a surer guide to our humanity and our sense of wonder, but the current AO Falstaff may cause you to reflect on this. It is a s good as night out at the theatre that you can get, and in the end – which might remind you of the end of Figaro or The Magic Flute – you might feel a sense of wonder at the uplifting magic of theatre and the music of an Italian genius and a gift from God to humanity.
Verdi’s Falstaff is the light version of The Merry Wives of Windsor rather than the more corrupt and tragic character of the histories, the real Falstaff, but the essential parts of the myth are there. This production is not far from commedia dell’arte – you might often be watching a ballet or panto – but the orchestration and choreography seemed to me to be spot on. The lead is one of those big parts that very few in the world can do at any one time, and Warwick Fyfe is one of them, vocally and theatre-wise. By the end, he has turned his character into a wondrous figment of the stage. The show is directed by Simon Phillips who knows about these things. They take some chances and they all come off. The last act is a bell-ringer and the finale would get standing ovation in other parts of the world.
Opera companies might be like footy or cricket clubs. They have their ups and downs. This is a production of complete and obvious assurance. I recalled the good times twenty or so years ago, when productions under Moffatt Oxenbould left the cast and audience suffused with benevolence.
Someone said that Shakespeare makes us proud to human – this show will leave you happy to be Australian. There are, I think, two shows left in Melbourne, and you should never forgive yourself in you do not catch one of them. And, which helps at this time of year, this show is nothing if not festive.