2019.01 Vienna State Opera: Auf dem höchsten Operngipfel


Vienna State Opera Magazine, January 2019

“Auf dem höchsten Operngipfel”

“At the highest possible summit… of the opera world”


Photo: Simon as Ford, ROH London, July 2018

A new interview with Simon and Carlos Alvarez has been published by the Vienna State Opera in their ‘Prolog’ magazine ahead of their performances of Falstaff in January 2019.

Link to the original interview in German


Two internationally sought after baritones, both regularly heard at the Vienna State Opera and both Austrian Kammersänger (KS), will meet in January in a series of performances of Falstaff. KS Carlos Alvarez and KS Simon Keenlyside  – they have previously only appeared together twice in one Vienna State Opera production: two series of performances of Nozze di Figaro in 2001/2002 at the Theater an der Wien – will both make role debuts in Falstaff at the State Opera. KS Alvarez will now sing the title role, after his acclaimed appearances as Ford 15 years ago.

Did Verdi and Boito create a new Falstaff or do they give us the Shakespearean character?

SK: Verdi was an admirer of Shakespeare and had his work translated into Italian to form the basis for his opera (derived from the play The Merry Wives of Windsor).  Accordingly the colours of the characters in Falstaff are totally Shakespearean. On the other hand, opera and theatre drama are different genres. And in Falstaff we have a special case. Verdi finds himself at the highest possible summit from which he can look down on the rest of the opera world with this revolutionary new work, his last opera – which he famously wrote for his own pleasure. In other words, in terms of content and colour, this Falstaff is entirely Shakespeare, but in terms of genre and forms of expression we have something completely different.

Lets outline Falstaff first.. Is he an empathetic character?

CA: Definitely not.

Is he a judge of human nature? Does he have the wisdom of age?

CA: His experiences, the inconveniences of life, have greatly broadened his perspective, his horizon, and have given him a great ability to judge his fellow human beings. However, he makes the same mistakes as those he rightly criticises, which argues against the wisdom of age.

Could you interpret the figure of Falstaff as an old Don Giovanni?

CA: Hmmm…Actually I don’t take any pleasure in this idea. It is true that they both try to gain the favour of women, but their approach is very different. Don Giovanni uses his power as well as the social and financial supremacy that goes with it, even if he does not appear quite shamelessly as a fraud. Falstaff’s method, on the other hand, is based on total misjudgements: neither is his charm as irresistible as he thinks, nor are his tricks as crafty and inscrutable as he hopes. Falstaff imagines himself safe in his superiority almost to the end, unaware that he is dealing with rivals who are far superior in terms of ingenuity.

None of us likes it if someone courts our wives and Falstaff is also a fraudster, an egoist, an egocentric – yet you like him. Why?

CA: Because, in a certain way, we admire people who are able to do what they want and say what they think at that moment in time. Especially if they are willing to use their charm as a threatening weapon.

Now lets come to Ford: is he a comical or a more pitiable, tragic figure?

SK: Ford is definitely a comical character. You do not have much leeway as an interpreter to see this differently because – in contrast to Mozart – Verdi provided very clear descriptions of his characters and depicted his stage world through the entirety of the characters of the piece. For example, you can view and interpret Don Giovanni from different perspectives – everything can be justified by the score. For Verdi roles, the spectrum is much smaller. For example, Nannetta and Fenton are lovers, and Ford is a funny, jealous and hot-tempered character who shows some empathy in the end. No more and no less.

And why did Alice ever marry Ford?

SK: No idea. Maybe he was handsome, rich, up and coming, or maybe the wedding was arranged. Who knows? Knowing this makes no difference to the interpretation of the role – because Verdi, as I already said, outlined the character very precisely.

Falstaff calls himself the “salt” for society. Isnt that too euphemistic a self-description? Could a society exist which would consist only of Falstaffs?

CA: You could really call old Falstaff unique with regard to every single detail of his life – and therefore in the final analysis also as “salt”. But of course “salt” alone is not sufficient.  The reason why we experience life as an interesting challenge is because there are – not least because of the diversity of human beings – differences which coexist and balance each other.

Fords big aria is put in inverted commas – it sounds very dramatic but is understood ironically. What kind of difference does it make for the performer if the music means what it expresses or on the other hand only appears to be an as if?

SK: If you play comedy, then you should not emphasize the funny part, you should avoid wanting to be funny. I perform Ford as seriously as possible, following the specifications of the score – so there are no winking asides. This way, the audience will perceive the contrast between the character’s self-image and his actual role in the story and the comedy of the character will be more evident.

Beethoven did not like Cosi fan tutte for moral reasons would he have liked Falstaff?

CA: In Cosi fan tutte all the characters follow the same goal in principle. They strive to find personal advantage in a humanly sobering and bitter way not compatible with Beethoven’s moral sense. On the other hand, the statement “tutto nel mondo è burla” verbalized in the closing fugue of Verdi’s  Falstaff is aiming in another direction. It is about a worldly-wise outlook which per se does not contain anything immoral.

SK: Most operas have some kind of morality, but it is rarely laid on with a sledgehammer. Traviata is highly moral, but we do not have the feeling that we are sitting on a school bench and being lectured by a teacher. And in Falstaff one finds numerous moral allusions – how to live better, what people should refrain from doing – but these are more or less hidden.

But doesnt the statement of the final fugue kill every idealism, every revolt against injustice?

CA: Do we have to give up our ideals only because we realize that life can be unfair? My answer is no!

SK: When, at the end of Don Giovanni, the survivors step onto the apron stage and declare that the evil in life is ultimately punished, everyone in the audience knows that in reality this is not the case. Is the Count’s “perdono” at the end of Nozze di Figaro meant seriously? Well, we know that in real life, people seldom change from their basic characteristics. Verdi points out in Falstaff that the world is crazy and we are the biggest fools, but he also means take life as it is, because in the end it is wonderful. Personally I would like to draw a comparison: Life is like a big ballroom, playing music, where you have to dance and fly across the floor without knowing or mastering the dance steps.

The role of Falstaff contains a lot of parlando” – only his arietta differs from this style. Why might Verdi not have given him, the central character, continuous music of his “own”?

CA: A life story like Falstaff’s, which is based on his highly individual moral code and the detailed description of his differing emotional states, needs a highly nuanced musical  and vocal shape: very lyrical,  but powerful, dense and yet at the same time light and airy. In addition, Falstaff never formulates questions, he makes statements: all this is more recitative than aria.

To what extent is what is demanded from the singer in Falstaff still Verdi singing in the true sense? Is it blasphemous to say that Falstaff is vocally easier than Rigoletto or Iago?

CA: We must not forget that Verdi has reached this point in his career, this developmental stage of composition, with the realization and perfection of the idea of an opera in its purest, most comprehensive form – total opera, so to speak: no closed musical numbers, one single big and impressive scenic and musical flow … but at the same time it requires a very detailed vocal style and, to live up to the great achievement of this adaptation of a Shakespearean work,  great respect and truthfulness in the interpretation – in other words: Verdi singing. Of course, if you consider only the epic and dramatic components, then you might say that Rigoletto and Iago are vocally more difficult than Falstaff – but that would mean ignoring some essential aspects of the role.

And what about Ford? How much bel canto style do you have to use to sing the part?

SK:  When I was young, Cappuccilli once said to me that as a singer one should never forget one thing: “prima la voce”. What he meant was, “Put all the dramatic action into your voice, act with the voice.” He was right – nevertheless, one should always try to stay on the breath, sing technically healthily – if only because that way the desired effects will show up better. Yes, Ford also requires bel canto singing in a broader sense.

A conductor who wants to conduct Tristan must already have the experience of several other works. Which parts in your career are in retrospect essential to perform  Falstaff on stage now?

CA: Every single role I was allowed to embody before I could consider the possibility of singing Falstaff helped me: Verdi with his impressive baritone characters, the bel canto style with its high demands and verismo with its great dramatic intensity. It takes a whole life  (with all its consequences) to arrive at Falstaff: 30 years on the stage …

A lot of former Fords have later sung Falstaff. Is this also Simon Keenlyside’s plan?

SK: I have often thought about that, but I really do not know. Life is not long enough to do everything one would like to do. At the moment I’m happy to participate in this wonderful opera as Ford. To sing Falstaff in the future – who knows? On the other hand, one should never say never …






{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment