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September 2, 2016

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Verdi’s Falstaff returns to Shanghai stage in new ‘era’

FALSTAFF, the hero of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, will be “punished” again on stage in Shanghai Opera House’s new production.

Though still based in Shakespeare’s Windsor in England, Falstaff is transported to the late 1950s in the new production that is expected to help the audience connect more closely to the English cultures.

Shanghai Opera House conductor Lin Yongsheng and baritone Zhang Feng, as well as Italian conductor Antonio Pirolli and baritone Pietro Spagnoli, will spearhead the opera, which will be staged at Shanghai Grand Theater on September 15-17.

Verdi created Falstaff when he was already in his 80s. It is based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV,” and tells the story of an English nobleman, running out of money, who seduces two women to get his hands on their husbands’ money. When the women realize his exact motive, they come up with an elaborate plan to punish him.

The opera is about money, sex, class, conflict between the sexes and different generations, according to Harry Fehr, director of the new production, who was a member of the Royal Opera’s Young Artists Program.

“It takes place in a world which seems to be changing. The old aristocracy is losing its traditional privileges and automatic respect, while the middle class is shown to be newly confident. Women are assuming greater independence in their lives and greater equality in their relationships with men. The younger generation is rebelling against the wishes of its parents,” says Fehr. “It is quite a challenge to make the hundreds-years-ago story relevant to audiences today. Our approach is to set it in Britain in the late 1950s, when similar changes happened not so long ago.”

Everyone’s social status is meticulously emphasized in the opera since Fehr believes it is a major source of comedy. Authentic looks of 1950s Britain have been created, with costumes to match the characters and reflecting their social status.

For example, Falstaff wears the tatty clothes of a penurious aristocrat, trying to hold onto his dignity. Alice and Meg wear the expensive, pretty, yet restrictively feminine fashions of the day. Ford’s masculine reserve is embodied in his smart but inflexible suit.

There will be several split-stage scenes in the opera when the plot requires two groups of people be on stage together but operating separately. And in some cases, the characters in the divided stages will interact with each other, running from one to the other, and creating a laugh riot.

The performers of Shanghai Opera House will be paired with experienced overseas artists for the first time on stage, according to Zhang Qingxin, vice president of Shanghai Opera House.

“The overseas artists are more experienced in performing Falstaff, while it is relatively new for most of the Chinese in the piece. It will be a great challenge — and an opportunity — for the Chinese to examine their performances in the show,” says Zhang.

Fehr says though baritone Zhang Feng will be singing the piece for the first time, they have worked out most of the details in the rehearsals.


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