September 22, 2013

Falstaff: I'm crushing hard on Alice Ford

Alice Ford getting her joke on.
Verdi's Falstaff is my favorite opera, but it's not merely my favorite opera; not just my favorite work of music (yes, even more so than Marvin Gaye's classic "Heard it on the Grapevine"); not just my favorite work of art in any genre or medium, encompassing literature, poetry, theater, cinema, painting, sculpture and... uh... sand art. (You know, where they take different colors of sand and make pretty... oh, never mind).

I'm pretty sure it's my favorite thing in this world.

This makes it at once really easy and supremely difficult to blog about. On the one hand, there are dozens - hundreds, perhaps - of Falstaff-centric topics I could write about. Every character, every scene, every mark of ink in the score. On the other hand, this would get old, meaning I have to narrow the field and make hard choices. Today, however, the choice is easy.

Let's talk about Alice Ford, arguably Verdi's finest soprano character. (Pronounce it "Ah-LEE-chay", please.)

That claim is one that might appear difficult to defend. Here's a partial list of assets we generally encounter in Verdian sopranos which Alice, to be blunt, lacks:
  • arias (yeah, that's a biggie)
  • a death scene
  • a mad scene
  • a passionate love duet (more on that below)
  • taking center stage in the finale to dominate the action
I could go on. Alice has no moment as cathartic as Aida's "Ritorna Vincitor". She has no vocal challenges even approaching Violetta's "Sempre libera". She doesn't get to foam at the mouth in a mental breakdown and sing to imaginary people. She isn't as tragically flawed as Lady Macbeth, as girlishly appealing as Gilda, as tortured as Desdemona. Even her own daughter Nannetta gets prettier music.

But I love her. I'm crushing on her. I commend Sir John Falstaff on his excellent taste in women. What's so fascinating about her?

She's real. She is real, three-dimensional, likeable, loveable, smart, fun-loving, vivacious, practical, charming, attractive, and complicated. She's an excellent mother and a tolerant, understanding wife. If you are a woman yourself, Alice is the woman you'd want to go shopping for shoes with or have lunch with. You'd want her in your book discussion club or your sewing circle. You'd want to talk on the phone with her every day.

If you're a man, I imagine you'd discover she's a great broad, fun to be with. Alice would shoot pool with you at the pool hall; she'd watch football with you and understand the game. She'd laugh at your jokes, unless they weren't funny; in that case, she'd shake her head and roll her eyes. She wouldn't be about stroking your fragile male ego. But she'd be a great companion.

Next to Alice, Verdi's previous gallery of leading ladies seem like angst-ridden, weepy downers. Yeah, they're loyal and would do anything for the man they love, but how much fun would you have hanging around with them once the sexual stuff had played itself out? 

No, Alice doesn't have arias. But every note of her role is pure operatic gold. One of her best moments comes in Act 1, scene 2, when she and her BFF Meg have received Falstaff's cheesy - not to mention identical - love letters. With Meg, Nannetta and Dame Quickly as her audience, Alice does a "dramatic reading" of the old fool's flowery prose. At the words "E il viso tuo", she launches into a soaring arch-shaped phrase. (see example below.) Verdi intends for us to smile upon hearing this; he intends us to recognize it as a double joke. Joke one is that Alice is mocking Falstaff by singing his flowery compliments with over-the-top fake emotion. Joke two is that Verdi is purposely parodying every arch-shaped phrase of genuine emotion he ever assigned to Violetta, Leonora, Aida, Amelia, and the rest of his soprano heroines. 
You, the listener, provided you're familiar the those earlier dramas, are aware not just of wit, but of layers of wit. How good is that?!

Alice's material only gets richer and more wonderful from there. Coyly and demurely leading on Sir John during their "rendezvous"; improvising a better practical joke than whatever her original one would have been when presented with Falstaff hiding in a laundry basket; letting her repentant husband join in the second scheme of the midnight assignation in Royal Park; re-telling the legend of the Black Huntsman with utter relish and charm; not letting love-struck Fenton finish his aria in the final scene, instead cutting him off in mid-high note with a no-nonsense "No, signore!"; and, at last, turning the tables on Ford's scheme of marrying off Nannetta to the fussbudget old Dr. Caius.

When her moment of triumph with the wedding plot arrives, Alice doesn't gloat, doesn't lecture, doesn't turn on Ford with the scorn he richly deserves. Instead, she smiles sweetly and makes him look, for the first time, at what a cute couple the two youngsters make. And with that, her work is done.

And all this, as well as it reads in a libretto, is nothing until brought to throbbing, vivid, bubbly life by music so mercurial and full of life it couldn't possibly have been written by a man who greeted the opening-night applause at age eighty.

Aida, the two Leonoras, Desdemona, Elisabetta... they're fine. They're beautiful and full of passion. Me? I'd take Ah-LEE-chay, if she and I weren't both already married. Bummer.

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