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A Minute With: Opera director Robert Carsen on the Met's 'Falstaff'

By Ellen Freilich

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Metropolitan Opera will stage its first new production of Giuseppe Verdi's comic opera "Falstaff" in nearly 50 years on Friday and transmit a live performance next week to 2,000 movie theaters in 64 countries.

Canadian opera director Robert Carsen has set the production, which will be conducted by music director James Levine and feature Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, in 1950s England. The December 14 performance will be shown around the globe.

Carsen, whose production of the opera premiered to critical acclaim in London in 2012 and in Milan in 2013 to mark the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birthday, spoke to Reuters about the work, its relevance to audiences and the character of Sir John Falstaff.

Q: Does "Falstaff" hold a special appeal for a stage director?

A. Oh, yes, of course, because Verdi's "Falstaff" is one of the greatest operas ever written and Falstaff is one of the greatest characters ever invented. (Italian composer) Arrigo Boito's libretto is a fantastic achievement in the astonishing way he wove Falstaff together from Shakespeare's plays so that the character was based on Shakespeare, but still completely his own.

Q. Correspondence between Verdi and Boito shows that Boito proposed the project to Verdi when the composer was almost 77 years old and Verdi had some doubts about whether to do it.

A. Yes, Verdi and Boito had just had this marvelous success with "Othello" which had premiered at La Scala in February 1887. It was also very brave of Verdi to compose "Falstaff" in a musical style and language and energy that he had never used in his life before.

I can't think of another composer who did something so completely different from his previous work at the end of his life. "Falstaff" was really a radical departure. The music is so astonishing and so text-based and so full of wit and humor and wisdom. Of all of Verdi's operas, "Falstaff" is probably the one most popular with conductors and I have great, great affection for it.

Q. Why did you set your production in England in the 1950s?

A. I moved the time from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. So it's still Elizabethan and it's still English. I'm not very good at doing period pieces because my philosophical belief is that everything is modern. Shakespeare's plays were performed in the contemporary dress of his time. I don't see why we can't do them in the contemporary dress of our time - even if the play was written hundreds of years ago or the opera was written more than a century ago.

Q. Does "Falstaff" speak to contemporary audiences?

A. In "Falstaff" much of the social criticism worked well for England after the Second World War, for instance the themes of a rising middle class and the anticipation of the sunset of the aristocracy. Falstaff was a member of the aristocracy and he has a very self-important view of that position and the power it gave him ....

This juxtaposition is very present in the 1950s because after the Second World War the England where 70 percent of the workforce was in service, working in people's homes, is finished. Of course, Falstaff is also a mythical character so you can't be too insistent about the social critique.

Q. What role does the set play in weaving this together?

A. Elements of the set, like the oak paneling, actually nod toward Elizabethan England. It reminds you of the Shakespearean period, but also Verdi's period. It draws together three periods: the period in which the piece is often set, the period when the opera was being composed and the period in which it's being watched. It's important to be aware of all three periods and keep them in some sort of balance.

Staging the opera for performances in Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan and the Met in New York also presented a challenge because the Falstaff character Shakespeare wrote is distinctly English, but the opera Verdi wrote is also very Italian.

La Scala is where "Falstaff" had its world premiere. So you have to make the production as English as possible, but it must have an Italian character to it as well. I'm curious as to how it will go over in New York which has some aspects of each.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jackie Frank)

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