Falstaff and The Whale

A person standing on a stageDescription automatically generated with low confidence

Michael Volle in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff (Karen Arnold, Metropolitan Opera).

A picture containing person, wall, indoor, personDescription automatically generated

Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale (IMDB).

Not a Fat Tuesday, but a Fat Weekend. On Saturday morning the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. On Sunday night a home viewing of The Whale. Both are all about fatness.

The first of these spectacles is universally praised as an enduring and humane masterpiece. As conductor Daniele Rustioni put it while sitting at a grand piano in a rehearsal hall at the Metropolitan Opera House in a pre-taped mini-lecture presented during the simulcast intermission, “Falstaff is a gift to generations to come of an old man, a genius.”

The second number on this inadvertent double bill won Brendan Fraser the Oscar for Best Actor, but however much the Academy voters may have slobbered over its outsized, artificially sweetened servings of sentimentality and bathos, the movie has been condemned by many—most wittily and trenchantly by film critic, comic, and fat activist Lindy West—as insulting, inauthentic, even obscene.

Yet however much these products of the opera house and cinema might wish to keep each other at arm’s length, this Saturday morning/Sunday night double feature can’t escape certain ethical and aesthetic questions that bind them. The exuberant hedonist John Falstaff, a beloved creation of William Shakespeare given musical panache and lyric pathos by Verdi, and Danny Aronofsky’s Whale are unlikely, yet mutually illuminating tablemates and bedfellows.

I took in the first of these ravening entertainments with my eighty-six-year-old father in his hometown of Mt. Vernon, Washington an hour north of Seattle. He lives another 45 minutes still farther north in Bellingham but likes to drive down and revisit his youth in the historic Lincoln Theater a block from the dike that runs along the mighty Skagit River.

A picture containing outdoor, sky, building, road Description automatically generated

The Lincoln Theatre in Mt. Vernon, Washington.

There were thirty people or so at the show, almost all gray-haired and almost all women. Wives—merry or not—tend to outlive their husbands.

A great admirer of Shakespeare’s plays, Verdi adapted two for the opera—Macbeth and Otello. He turned, finally, to Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff with his collaborator on Otello, the librettist Arrigo Boito, who drew from The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Henry IV plays for Falstaff. Across a long career that yielded nearly thirty operas Verdi had killed off dozens of figures both tragic and villainous. For his last work, the great man decided to return to operatic humor some fifty years after his only other attempt at a comedy, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day) of 1840.

Falstaff stands at the center of the piece, although more often in this colorful Met production set in the 1950s by the reliably inventive and resourceful director Robert Carsen, Sir John is sprawled in bed or barn or sits in armchairs that can barely contain his girth. Yet even if everything revolves around the title character, Falstaff is one of opera’s greatest ensemble pieces, putting its entire cast in a rollercoaster of false endearments and real insults; assignations and assumed identities; crowings and cooings; dissemblings and madcap mockings—all served up by the endlessly inventive Verdi. It is a thrilling pleasure to be swept along by the aged master’s deft and unpredictable treatment of the Boito/Shakespeare speeches and dialogue, his imaginative attention to the particulars of a character and the reversals and payoffs of the plot. There are sweeping lines of romance and self-aggrandizement. The music itself a feast, its flavors distinct yet mingling, balanced yet boisterous.

In the opera’s first scene Falstaff reads off the bill of the previous night’s pub feast that he and his back-stabbing henchmen, Bardolfo and Pistola, have had the night before and just woken up from, heavy, hungover and hungry again: “6 chickens; 6 shillings, 30 gargles of Xeres [sherry]: 2 liras; 3 turkeys … 2 pheasant” and, finally, a single anchovy. That tiny lone fish is the punchline to the set-up of excess, not unlike the wafer-thin mint that makes Mr. Creosote explode in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. An anchovy might have burst Falstaff too.

We meet the Merry Wives in the opera’s second scene. These skinny, scheming women plan to make sport of Falstaff and his ham-fisted attempts to bed a pair of noble ladies (Alice Ford and Meg Page, sung with conniving precision by Ailyn Pérez and Jennifer Johnson Cano respectively). Falstaff hopes to sate his love-lust while funding his culinary appetites with their husbands’ money.

The first thing Alice sings is that Parliament should make a law to tax fat people. The single group of younger women in the Lincoln Theatre for the simulcast laughed uproariously, here and throughout, especially when Falstaff was the big butt of the revels. These women were in for a penny and even more pounds: stick it to the fat guy!

The noted Wagnerian baritone, Michael Volle, renowned for his portrayals of Wotan in The Ring, delivered an abundance of comedy in Saturday’s title role. A rich and nuanced voice, capable of rousing disbelief, jaded bravura, and, in the end, sage and jaded unrepentance. Volle was undeniably, irresistibly funny; the humor all the more riotous because he played it straight, never slicing himself even a sliver of ironic distance.

Stepping out of character would not have been easy, since Volle was strapped into a fat suit. One of the best things about the Met simulcast is the interview that the stars give in the intermission right after coming off stage. The ability of diva or divo to belt it out on the boards then answer questions in the wings with nonchalant wit and warmth is not only impressive and fun, but also allows the simulcast audiences behind-the-scenes glimpses not available to ticket holders in the Met itself.

Lurching lithely off-stage, the likeable and ebullient Volle praised his castmates and the ensemble’s clockwork timing. He also remarked on the difficulties of moving in a comic way while encased in his prosthetic belly. The bulk affected his balance. “Don’t worry,” he added at one point, “It’s heavy.” That must have stung real people of like dimensions and greater density.

As Lindy West reminds us: large people are used to such insensitivity, to fat shaming both casual and conscious. They have been mocked since long before Shakespeare and right down into these enlightened, inclusive simulcast times.

By Sunday night I was back on Bainbridge Island directly west of Seattle at my mother’s apartment. We watched The Whale. She hated it.

Where Carsen’s Falstaff is a symphony of mid-century pastel interiors, sumptuous tweeds, red hunting jackets complementing a menu of real food and drink, some of it consumed by Volle on stage while singing in a tour-de-force of culinary bel canto in the vibrant company of others, Aronofsky’s Whale is all gloom and doom, his morbidly obese Charlie shut away from the sun and society, but for a crew of cut-out characters who continually appear: a crusty caregiver; a credulous missionary; a conveniently reconnecting teenage daughter, previously estranged and still seething with anger at her gay, fat dad; and a pizza-delivery guy.

The fat suit of The Whale is far bigger than the one Volle’s Falstaff wears. Fraser’s character is meant to weigh in at around 600 pounds—what Sir John would have called 43 stone. That fat is as fake as the food: Mars bars and mayo; pizza slathered in grape jelly, log-like meatball subs bulging with extra cheese.

The music in The Whale is as distasteful as the food. When Fraser hoists himself from sofa, wheelchair, or toilet, or when he rises up figuratively and disgorges slabs of rhetorical grandeur like those subs heimliched out of him in perhaps the most egregious of the movie’s suicidal feeding frenzies, the soundtrack surges with composer Rob Simonsen’s minimalist reheat of the faux-baroque pathos of the specious Albinoni Adagio.

The laughs of Falstaff feel like bitter reflux after watching The Whale. After swallowing Simonsen’s non-diegetic-diuretic-sonic medications, one hears and feels more clearly that Verdi’s music is what elevates his Falstaff above such squalor and shame.

This musical costume makes Falstaff’s character even more outsized than his stature: in every way, he’s bigger than life. He’s been shamed and mercilessly played with, but in the amoral moral that concludes the proceedings, he reminds his persecutors that without him life would be utterly boring. His wit encompasses them, indeed feeds their mean, measly jokes made at his expense. It is only at the last that he steps outside of his character and the story, if not his fat suit, as if to prove finally his uncontainability. In his self-reflexive coda, Verdi calls irreverent attention to his own role as creator: “Let’s end this all with a chorus” sings Falstaff, ushering in a rollicking irreverent fugue for the entire crew that begins, “Everything in the world is a hoax.”

The days of extremely overweight stars at the Met are mostly done. The opera is pretty much over in which the fat lady once sang. She probably ain’t coming back for many curtain calls.

Verdi’s previous Shakespearean venture of a few years before Falstaff was Otello. The Met at last rejected the long, demeaning tradition of blackface in 2015. If Otello can, indeed must, be performed without blackface, isn’t it time for Falstaff to shed the fat suit?

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com