Monday, February 22, 2010

FALSTAFF Characters: Bardolph and Pistol

As we gear up for Saturday’s opening night of Falstaff, I’ll be introducing on this blog some of Shakespeare’s beloved characters as re-imagined by Verdi and Boito. Let’s start with Falstaff’s two drinking buddies, cronies, and untrustworthy followers, Bardolph and Pistol.

Of Shakespeare’s gang of tavern low-lifes, Verdi and Boito retained only these two, discarding a variable number of others. (The exact population of Falstaff’s tavern varies from play to play and production to production; occasionally seen in those taverns are Prince Hal and Fenton, who, it’s said in Merry Wives, “kept company with the wild Prince and Poins.”)

As for Bardolph, who appears in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and Merry Wives, he’s the most useless and pathetic of all Falstaff’s buddies, a hopeless wino whose nose lights up like a lantern every night as he drinks. As Falstaff says of him:
“O, thou art a perpetual triumph, an everlasting bonfire-light! Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern: but the sack that thou hast drunk me would have bought me lights as good cheap at the dearest chandler's in Europe. I have maintained that salamander of yours with fire any time this two and thirty years; God reward me for it!”

Verdi and Boito’s Falstaff also gets a great line describing Bardolph, in the big free-for-all in the final scene:
Nitro! Catrame! Solfo!!
Riconosco Bardolfo!
Naso vermiglio! Naso bargiglio!
Puntuta lesina! Vampa di resina!
Salamandra! Ignis fatuus!
Vecchia alabarda! Stecca
Di sartore! Schidion d'inferno!
Aringa secca!
Vampiro! Basilisco!
Manigoldo! Ladrone!
Ho detto. E se smentisco
Voglio che mi si spacchi il cinturone!!


(FALSTAFF: Saltpeter, tar, sulfur! I recognize Bardolph! Vermillion nose, wattled nose! Pointy awl, flame of resin! Salamander! Ball of wildfire! Old battle-ax! Tailor’s yard! Roasting-spit from hell! Dried herring! Vampire! Basilisk! Rascal! Monstrous thief! I’ve had my say, and if I’m lying, may my great big belt snap!!
ALL: Bravo!)
As for Pistol, in Shakespeare he’s distinguished by his explosive temper and libido (Falstaff, for one, can never resist making dirty puns on Pistol’s name) as well as his unnecessarily ornate language. Here, for instance, is how Pistol picks a fight in Henry IV Part Two:
What! shall we have incision? shall we imbrue?
Snatching up his sword
Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!
Why, then, let grievous, ghastly, gaping wounds
Untwine the Sisters Three! Come, Atropos, I say!
That kind of thing survives, in Verdi and Boito’s Falstaff, when Bardolph and Pistol tell Ford “La corona che adorna d’Atteòn l’irte chiome su voi già spunta” (The crown that adorned Acteon’s locks already grows upon you), to which Ford-—unfamiliar as he is with Greek mythology—-can only respond: “Say what?” (They explain, Acteon’s crown = horns, i.e. Ford is a cuckold.)

Two of my favorite musical jokes in Falstaff involve Bardolph and Pistol mocking monks and church music: first, the sarcastic “Amen” they sing when Dr. Caius vows never again to go drinking with rogues, but only with godly, pious, sober company:

And secondly, the funny self-flagellating melody they sing when trying to get Falstaff to take them back, at the beginning of Act Two, to the words “Siam pentiti e contriti” (We’re repentent and contrite). This line always reminds me of the monks bonking themselves in the heads with boards in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

In Seattle Opera’s Falstaff, Steven Goldstein plays Bardolph and Ashraf Sewailam plays Pistol. Goldstein, who has previously played such roles as Squeak in Billy Budd and the Bear in Siegfried at Seattle Opera, played his first Bardolph when this production was presented by Opera Cleveland. But Sewailam, who is also returning to Seattle Opera, is new to Falstaff. He has sung bass roles in earlier Verdi operas, including Ferrando in Il trovatore and (in his native Cairo) Ramfis in Aida, but finds that working on Verdi’s effervescent final comedy is like “drinking champagne”. As for Goldstein, he’s happy that in this production Bardolph and Pistol make such a cute couple: “a tall Egyptian and a short Jew!”

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