Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Time now for Falstaff’s one vaguely serious character, Ford, the cuckolded husband. In Shakespeare it seems as if the relationship between Alice and Ford has never been without a little friction, mostly based on his perceiving that she outclasses him: that she’s prettier than he is handsome, that her family was richer than his, that grace and beauty and nobility come more easily to her than they do to him. Certainly she’s used to getting what she wants and having things go her way; nothing in play or opera indicates that she has any experience losing anything. She’s aware of her husband’s jealousy but hasn’t ever figured out a good way of dealing with it.

Left, David Lara played Ford in Seattle Opera's 2007 Young Artists Program Falstaff.

To Weston Hurt, who plays Ford in the current production at Seattle Opera, Ford’s jealousy has less to do with his relationship with Alice than with his sense of himself and his standing in the community. Says Hurt, Ford thinks that being a cuckold is the worst shame that could possibly befall him; he’s so terrified of people thinking Alice is cheating on him that he’s incapable of thinking rationally about his situation. Of course Alice would never cheat on him, particularly not with the repellant Falstaff. But Ford can’t see this obvious truth, not when blinded by his worst nightmare. His blindness is what’s so true, so scary and funny about him.

Ford’s jealousy—-the dark kernel at the core of Verdi’s bright, sunny comedy—-is treated comically in Shakespeare. Remember, Merry Wives of Windsor is a farce; there’s nothing serious about it. I’ve always seen Frank Ford played for laughs in Shakespeare. It’s hard to take Shakespeare’s Ford too seriously because Mr. Page (the other Husband of Windsor) is a major character in the play, and he isn’t jealous of his wife at all. He even tries to help Ford see that he’s being a jerk. But Boito’s libretto eliminates the reality-check provided by Page, and Verdi’s music takes seriously what in Shakespeare is actually a goofy speech on the part of the jealous Ford:
What a damned Epicurean rascal is this! My heart is ready to crack with impatience. Who says this is improvident jealousy? my wife hath sent to him; the hour is fixed; the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at; and I shall not only receive this villanous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong. Terms! Names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends: but Cuckold! Wittol!--Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass: he will trust his wife; he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself; then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect. God be praised for my jealousy! Eleven o'clock the hour. I will prevent this, detect my wife, be revenged on Falstaff, and laugh at Page. I will about it; better three hours too soon than a minute too late. Fie, fie, fie! cuckold! cuckold! cuckold!
I fondly remember teaching the opera Falstaff to a high school class, years ago, and a very bright student who noticed that in the music Verdi uses to introduce this speech, we hear not only Ford’s anger and jealousy, but also his panicky fear:

But even though that monologue (it’s not technically an aria) is the dark core at the heart of Verdi’s otherwise sunny opera, it too contains a musical joke. Because cuckolded men were traditionally represented, in medieval and Renaissance Europe, as wearing horns, opera composers like Verdi always give their French horns an opportunity to mock characters like Ford, or Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, who obsess about their wives’ suspected infidelities:

By the end of Shakespeare’s play, Ford caves in entirely to Alice:
Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt;
I rather will suspect the sun with cold
Than thee with wantonness: now doth thy honour stand
In him that was of late an heretic,
As firm as faith.
In the opera, he loses out both to Alice and to his daughter Nannetta (who in the play is not his, but rather his neighbor Page’s daughter). That’s the topsy-turvy world of comedy for you: where men lose every battle in the war of the sexes!