Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

Falstaff — San Francisco Opera Performance Review


San Francisco Opera Performance

November 2, 2013



Every time I go to the opera I am struck by how conservative it is.  It has to be the most conservative art form in its philosophical and social outlook.  Falstaff exemplifies this beneath a rollicking, lighthearted surface.  It is a fast moving, involved plot line.  It is harder to follow on paper than in the stage realization.  If you just read the synopsis, it seems complicated, because there are so many characters and relationships to keep straight, but when you see it, everything is clear and natural.

The production is excellent.  The cast and orchestra are all of special merit.  The sets were not particularly imaginative or noteworthy, but they were effective and satisfactory.  Falstaff is the weighty center of the story.   His dominating presence carries the performance, very effectively portrayed by Bryn Terfel.  In contrast to The Flying Dutchman, which is a static, repetitious, psychological drama where almost nothing happens, Falstaff is nonstop action with a minimum of theorizing.  But it is not at all clear what the message is, or if there is one.  It seems rather confused and mixed up.

Falstaff is presented as an aging rogue, hopelessly deluded about himself, pursing younger (married) women whom he has no chance of winning.  The women take exception to his misguided interest and spend the whole play making sport of it and taking cruel, sadistic vengeance upon him.  It suggests the mean spirited side of Halloween.  Beneath the playful pretense, there is sharp-edged animosity.  Men are presented as bumbling fools (except for Fenton), Falstaff as delusionally grandiose, Ford as delusionally jealous.  Women are manipulative, conniving, controlling, and cruel, while superficially presenting as virtuous and innocent.  It is very simplistic and simpleminded.

I liked way the sadism and cruelty were emphasized in the third act.  During the scene at Herne’s Oak the fairies and goblins appear in white costumes with pointed hats reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan and carrying a cross to boot.  They then proceed to pepper Falstaff with all manner of abuse as he is lying helplessly on the ground.  It was rather excessively sadistic, I thought.  I was wondering if they were going to set that cross on fire.  I’m not one to insist on political correctness, but this was a rather odd sight to see in San Francisco:  the Ku Klux Klan torturing a helpless victim underneath a tree with the presumption of moral rectitude on the side of the torturers.  It was another graphic representation of the persecution of male desire that is so rampant in this society.  The whole community gangs up on old Falstaff just because he wants to have an affair with a miserably married woman whose jealous, possessive husband imagines her having affairs behind his back at every opportunity and regards marriage as the bane of his life.  It doesn’t really make sense, because if Falstaff is such a ridiculous figure who is not to be taken seriously, then why is it so necessary to mobilize the entire community to reign down this excessive punishment on him?  Maybe Falstaff is more of a threat than he is given credit for.  It is supposed to be comic and funny, but there really isn’t anything to laugh at.  Maybe my sense of humor has been poisoned by modern life.

In the end all is forgiven and we see the triumph of marriage after its being under withering attack throughout the whole drama.  This is what I mean by conservatism.  Traditional (Catholic Christian) values always seem to triumph in these operas.   Dissenters are vilified and punished and things are left pretty much the way they were at the outset.  If you like things the way they are, and have a generally cynical attitude toward life, you might go for this.