At the Festival
Friday18June 2021


Two weeks before the first performance of Falstaff at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Australian stage director Barrie Kosky conjures up his special fondness for the last opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi marked the history of opera in the nineteenth century with dramas like La Traviata, Rigoletto, Le Trouvère and Otello. Yet, at the end of his life, he turned his focus towards comedy to explore new musical horizons. The special place that Falstaff holds in his oeuvre has always fascinated stage director Barrie Kosky: “For his last opera, Verdi not only chose a very different subject than in his previous works: he also developed a brand-new musical language. Although he was eighty years old, he was influenced by current transformations in musical and theatrical forms in Italian opera. Falstaff is among those works that look more towards the twentieth century than towards the nineteenth—like prophecies that announce artistic changes in the making.”

Originally, Falstaff was a character created by William Shakespeare; he appeared in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 (1596–1598) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602). Although Falstaff is one of the greatest comic figures of all time, Barrie Kosky also sees in him a being with great depth, who, like Don Quixote, constantly questions us on the meaning of our actions: “You mustn’t forget that all of Shakespeare’s great comedies are also great tragedies. There’s an element of wounded humanity in Twelfth Night, or What You Will and in A Midsummer Night's Dream. All of these plays that we call ‘comedies’ or ‘pastoral comedies’ are as deep as Othello, Hamlet or Macbeth. They just take other paths. A common preconception is that comedy is merely pure entertainment. But that’s not the case. In Falstaff, there’s a bit of vaudeville, as well as many other comic forms that existed already in ancient Greek theatre; but it’s also a work about people in search of love. Desire, jealousy, hatred and loneliness are central themes in most great masterpieces. They’re also found in Falstaff. There are four very important elements in this play: food, drink, sex and death. The first three are used to escape the fourth. At the end of the opera, Falstaff states that we’ve got to laugh at everything. He’s a man who searches, eats, drinks, and tries to understand the world around him. In a certain way, he’s like all of us.”

Still, this metaphysical profoundness does not overshadow the comical dimension that, for Barrie Kosky, is the greatest challenge on stage. “During my career, I’ve directed operettas as well as comical plays and serious operas. I guarantee you, it’s always ten times more demanding to stage a comedy than a tragedy. True comedy is something very organic that is based on rhythm and transitions. It requires a lot of rehearsing to perfect the timing. Getting laughs in theatre relies on very complex technique and construction. It’s a difficult challenge, but I get a lot of pleasure doing it!”

Louis Geisler