For Pittsburgh Opera's Mark Delavan, portraying Falstaff goes beyond buffoonery
October 21, 2009 4:00 AM
Mark Delavan as Falstaff, Veronica Villarroel, left, as Alice Ford, and Lindsay Ammann as Mistress Quickley in Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Falstaff."
Mark Delavan is transformed into Falstaff.
By Andrew Druckenbrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Don't underestimate the knight.
Shakespeare's beloved character Sir John Falstaff may be well past his prime, weighed down by a sizable belly and broke. In Verdi's "Falstaff" he fails to woo women half his age (or younger), is the butt of pranks and is outwitted by those Merry Wives. He could be described as lazy and lecherous, dishonorable and boastful. But American baritone Mark Delavan thinks that to view Falstaff as an impotent old fool is to deeply misunderstand the old knight and the opera itself.
"Sir John is not someone to be trifled with. He is a powerful person," says the singer who will portray Falstaff in the Pittsburgh Opera's upcoming production of Verdi's last masterpiece (it premiered in 1893 at La Scala in Milan).
"When you try to play him like a buffoon, you got a problem. In addition to having good comic timing and getting laughs, you have to bring a warrior's presence to the role."
Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito's plot constantly hints at Falstaff's still-potent strength. He chases his capable companions Bardolfo and Pistola with a broom after they refuse to send his love letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page. Later, when a group led by Ford's husband thinks they have caught Falstaff red-handed with her, Dr. Caius preaches caution: "A man like him can cut us down with a breath."
Yes, Sir John still has the training, sword and class rank to cause serious trouble to those who cross him, even if they have good reason, as Ford and Caius do. Delavan proves his point:
"There is a scene in which [the husband]Ford, who is in disguise, asks Falstaff, 'Do you know Ford?' and Falstaff says 'If I ever saw that guy I would grab him by the horns and beat him.' "
Verdi's musical treatment of Falstaff backs this up. He depicts him not as bumbling but potent, with a large range and a booming voice, usually played by baritones with dark and heavy timbres.
"There are times you are asked to sing vocal gymnastics and then suddenly pianissimos," says Delavan.
The genius is that Verdi takes this serious and formidable depiction of Falstaff and subjects it to comic treatment in the orchestra (almost a character all its own) and with the rest of the cast. Delavan follows suit.
"Ironically, the way I make this comedy work is to be extremely serious," says Delavan, who last appeared on the Benedum Center stage in 2000 to play Figaro in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."
"The third act monologue has changed for me. When I did it first, I played it for laughs, but now I realize it is an old man's musing on how cruel the world is."
When you do this while wearing the infamous fat suit most productions call for, the ridiculousness of Falstaff and his ego shine through.
"To call Sir John confident would be a gross understatement," says Delavan. "For him to say he has a shot with these two young woman in town is absolutely laughable. And he calls his abdomen his realm, his kingdom -- that is hilarious!"
Also key to making the comedy work is the rest of the cast.
"The great thing with this cast is that it is tag team," says Delavan. "Who is going to be the straight man now? When I am with Alice, I am more goofy. Here is this fat man trying to be smooth to woo this woman. It is a lot of fun, but it is a long night, the joy of creating such a rich character."
Delavan is particularly excited about working with "two of the funniest men in opera," Stephen Powell as Ford and locally based Kevin Glavin as Pistola. "Powell and I have done 'Falstaff' many times before and he is very funny and Kevin Glavin is one of the funniest men on earth."
He also looks forward to working with another tag team, that of the scheming women, Katherine Drago as Meg, Veronica Villarroel as Alice and Lindsay Ammann as Mistress Quickly. "You will laugh," states Delavan, dryly.
Another cast member Devalan can't wait to work with is Matthew, his 9-year old son, who will play the silent role of Robin the Page. Delavan has brought his children on stage before, but still gets nervous when it happens.
"My son Lucas, now turning 20, did the role of Robyn the Page at New York City Opera in 1999, and he had a blast."
When Delavan is in full costume as Falstaff, his own sons might not recognize him. Even though Delavan is "pretty good size" at 6-foot-2," the 50-year-old needs a lot of makeup and costume accessories to look like the hefty knight.
"When I took on this role for the first time in 1995, I had some issues with it. I didn't want to wear the fat suit at all," he says. "I didn't realize how vain I really was."
Watching the great baritone Sherrill Milnes sing the role once convinced him to embrace it. "If you think about the physicality of adding 100 pounds of weight, most to your tummy, you are going to walk differently, stand differently."
But remember, even when he's weighed down, dismiss Falstaff at your own peril.