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The Belly and the Crown

Encounter between Bryn Terfel and Yannick Haenel

The Belly and the Crown
At first sight, Yannick Haenel’s latest novel, recently awarded the Medici Prize, and Falstaff, now showing at Opera Bastille, have nothing in common. What does the hero of Tiens ferme ta couronne – the ill-fated author of a scenario no one wants to produce – have to do with the vain, bankrupt gentleman buffoon of Verdi’s opera, who ends up tossed into the Thames? Yet no sooner had they met than the novelist and the masterly interpreter of the title role, Bryn Terfel embarked on a long dialogue on such diverse subjects as philosophy and stags, theatre and Harvey Weinstein, poetry and wine… An encounter orchestrated by Alexandre Lacroix, chief editor of our partner Philosophie Magazine.

Alexandre Lacroix: Yannick, you have seen a performance of Falstaff at Opera Bastille with Bryn in the title role. What are your memories of this production?

Yannick Haenel: It was an exhilarating whirlwind. This is an opera in which all the characters, men and women alike, waltz around the unfathomable character of Falstaff. I came away under the spell. What fascinates me is Falstaff’s loss of control, how he loses his grip on events even when he remains at the centre of the work. How does one sing loss of control? That’s the first question I’d like to ask Bryn.

Bryn Terfel: The question of loss of control, of chaos, is interesting because it lies at the heart of this work. The libretto of Falstaff, as we know, is a composite text constructed from the amalgamation of two Shakespearean texts: Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. At the first production of Falstaff that I took part in – I was singing the role of Ford – Peter Stein, the director, had put together a sort of Bible in which he had noted down the source of each phrase of the libretto.

I later bought a facsimile of Verdi’s manuscript score, which Ricordi had put on sale. On going through the manuscript, one notices the dynamic quality of his writing, the modifications he made, the complex web of relationships woven between the different protagonists… So singing Falstaff means singing that virtuoso chaos created by Verdi and Boito, his brilliant librettist. However, I’d like to return to an idea that you formulated: I don’t altogether feel that I’m at the centre of this opera. I’ve always considered Falstaff as a sort of Flemish painting in which each of the characters in that little community of Windsor has a role to play. Personally, I like to think that the central action of the opera is the idyll that Fenton and Nannetta experience, their new-born romance and the secret little meetings that they have in the midst of the chaos.    

Alexandre Lacroix: You both evoke the work’s chaos … Although Falstaff is a comedy, it’s moral is rather dark, concluding with these words: “Everything in this world is a farce.” – the term farce to be taken here in the darkest sense of the word. As if all the peregrination sand twists of the plot served only to show us that the world is nothing but a façade to be torn down. Are you conscious of this darkness?

Yannick Haenel: For my part, I see the character of Falstaff as a vehicle for the tragedy that governs the relationships around him – the baseness of the lackeys, the jealousy of the men, the cruelty of the women, the collective meanness of the community. I have the urge to play devil’s advocate and find Falstaff likeable. Because in my eyes he’s a victim, like Dostoevsky’s hero in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, who believes he is bringing the truth to the inhabitants of a far-off planet when in fact he brings only despair…

Bryn Terfel: My vision of Falstaff is slightly less sombre. I imagine Verdi at the age of 80, retired to his property in Milan, writing a comedy after spending a lifetime writing tragedies. What he said the day after the premier of Otello comes to mind: “Having massacred so many heroes and heroines, I certainly have the right to laugh a little.” In Falstaff, beyond the farce, beyond the darkness, beyond the sadness, all the characters seem to draw some profit from their experiences: Alice has doubtless never known a man who speaks to her as Falstaff speaks to her in his letters; Ford learns to his cost that he could be outwitted, even in his own home by a man as conceited and disgusting as Falstaff. As for the two lovers, who are the beating heart of the village, their love triumphs in the end. During the final fugue, which is a musical masterpiece, all the voices respond to each other: the community has, in a way, remained intact. When listening to this music, I can’t help seeing a sort of happy ending. And then Sir John Falstaff doesn’t come out of it so badly…

Falstaff is a failed Don Giovanni: he’s living in a Mozart opera, whereas the good people of Windsor live in a bourgeois novel. Yannick Haenel

Yannick Haenel: You’re right to draw a parallel between Falstaff’s letters and the relationship between Nannetta and Fenton. In this opera, there are two amorous discourses: one that appears genuine, the other excessive and clumsy, but in which there is just as much love. The scene in which Alice receives the letter from Falstaff is suffused with melancholy, because although the letter has been written by a buffoon, it is no less beautiful. This buffoon knows how to speak of love, even if all is falsehood. What is really cruel and dark in this piece is that Falstaff’s love is not recognised as such. He is not taken seriously. Everyone prefers to laugh at him. The chorus may well sing: “Everything in this world is a farce”, these words are not enough to disperse the melancholy that wells up at the loss of love. It’s interesting because I happen to know that the role of Don Giovanni is in your repertoire, you have performed it on this very stage, at the Opéra Bastille. Now, I have the impression that Falstaff is a failed Don Giovanni: he’s living in a Mozart opera whereas the good people of Windsor live in a bourgeois novel.

Bryn Terfel: I also sense that dark melancholy at work in Falstaff. And at the same time there is this tremendous energy: the opera seems to be saying that, whatever happens, life goes on. When he gets thrown into the Thames – with the fish and the rubbish – Falstaff has only to enter a tavern and “pour a little wine into the Thames water” to

return to the full vigour of life. When I play Falstaff, that is how I imagine his trajectory: even when his morale is at rock bottom, even when he’s down in the hollow of the wave, lost in the depths of despair, at the bottom of the abyss, deceived, abused, ruined, when he has lost all his illusions, he still maintains that gleam in his eyes which, even if he doesn’t get the last word, allows him to have the last laugh.

Falstaff © Sébastien Mathé

Alexandre Lacroix: Bryn, you were saying earlier that Falstaff is disgusting. One of the characteristics of Verdi’s opera is that it tackles the question of masculine coquetry (or vanity), which is a question of physique and, more particularly, the stomach. Rarely in a play, or more widely, in fiction, has the belly of a male character been such an issue.

Bryn Terfel: It’s important to remember that one of the last interpreters of the role of Falstaff in this production by Dominique Pitoiset was Ambrogio Maestri. Now, Ambrogio Maestri didn’t just play Falstaff, he WAS Falstaff. He is one of those performers who brand the role with a hot iron. I spent a lot of time watching his videos, I was fascinated by the way he moved, the time he took to go from one side of the stage to the other. I must admit that, in slipping into the role of Falstaff, I also slipped into Ambrogio Maestri’s shoes. I have therefore become an abdomen within an abdomen with my own abdomen. As a performer, it’s always complicated to know what comes from me and what belongs to my character. For example, for this production of Falstaff, it’s the first time I’ve performed with my own hair. It’s unprecedented, remarkable! Is this belly mine or Falstaff’s? Perhaps I am myself turning into Falstaff in my old age…[laughter] But it’s clear that Verdi rejoices in the belly of his hero. The women all see that he’s a mountain of lard. And yet, when I put on my false belly and walk around the corridors at Bastille, I feel as if all eyes are drawn to it like a magnet. One must add that opera has traditionally been an area in which corpulence has been seen as something fascinating. Look at Luciano Pavarotti: he had the world at his feet.

Yannick Haenel: Falstaff’s belly is his throne, his sovereignty. Like Henry IV, Verdi’s opera is notable in that the Fool has more vitality than the King. Indeed, I would like to move from the matter of his abdomen to that of excess and transgression. Recently, the international press was shocked by the Weinstein affair, the American producer accused of sexually harassing numerous actresses. The affair created a tidal wave and set off reactions from other women who spoke out all over the world about having been victims of harassment, and sometimes to denounce their aggressor. I was wondering if you were aware, when singing this role today, of the very particular resonance that the character’s excessive and ultimately chastened libido might have with current affairs.

Bryn Terfel: If you’re venturing into this terrain, in effect, what happens to Falstaff is reminiscent of what is going on in the news, except that he is immediately villified in public, whereas the Weinstein affair has taken twenty odd years to come to light. As to whether I think about it when I’m on stage … In the case of Falstaff, maybe he plays on his noble rank. Maybe he feels authorised by his status to go beyond his rights, to flout the limits.

Yannick Haenel: Certainly, the story contains a parallel layer of social conflict, because Falstaff is a nobleman, an aristocrat who has the extravagant reflexes of a ridiculous lord of the manor. He is the village scapegoat, someone who gets punished for their excesses. At the ceremony in the third act, the women pronounce this phrase: “Lord, make him chaste!”

Bryn Terfel: Yes: “Domine fallo casto!”

Yannick Haenel: Which therefore makes it a symbolic castration. More than just vengeance, it’s also a matter of initiating the excessive Falstaff to the customs of Bourgeois society in which sex must be kept within limits.

Perhaps I’m turning into Falstaff in my old age … Bryn Terfel

Alexandre Lacroix: While we’re on the subject of the ceremony in Act III, there’s a link between Yannick’s novel and Dominique Pitoiset’s staging in that Falstaff wears stag’s antlers. In Tiens ferme ta couronne, we notice the obsessional presence of stags and deer. The title is a reference to the ancient myth referred to in the work of the Scottish anthropologist James G. Frazer: that of the king of the wood. In Diana’s sanctuary, near Rome, there was a man who was both priest and king, a form of sovereignty that one acceded to by killing the existing priest-king: in this way, by becoming king, you also become the next victim! The deer is the creature of Diana. Once you become aware of it, you see stags everywhere, it’s a symbol that remains omnipresent in our culture.

Yannick Haenel: Yes, and I would add that in Falstaff there is another element that resonates with that legend: for me, Verdi’s hero is a philosophical being because he undergoes an initiation rite. He believes himself to be a master and a predator and at the ceremony, a ritual which calls upon very ancient symbols, he discovers that he is himself prey. At bottom, Falstaff is also a king: a king capable of laughing at his crown. He goes along with this parody of sovereignty. In the opera, he compares himself with Acteon, the nephew of Dionysos, the god of wine in Greek mythology. There are mythological undercurrents throughout this opera. Falstaff is not merely a ridiculous, vain buffoon, he is also an ancestral being who roars with laughter at the memory of his ancient identity.

Bryn Terfel: In the third act there is that moment when Falstaff invokes the aid of the gods:

Numi, proteggetemi! Giove! Tu per amor d’Europa ti trasformasti in bove; Portasti corna

Ye gods, protect me! Jupiter! For love of Europa, you changed yourself into a bull; you wore horns.

But the gods remain deaf to his pleas. The opera presents this myth and then sweeps it aside. The gods look the other way.

Falstaff © Sébastien Mathé

Alexandre Lacroix: We have evoked the stomach and then the horns. There is another motif in Falstaff that plays an important role: alcohol, which is also strongly present in Yannick’s novel. His narrator spends his time drinking.

Yannick Haenel: Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Falstaff has the particularity of being a drunken hero. But far from diminishing him, his drunkenness makes him greater. On seeing this performance of Falstaff, and on seeing the Orson Welles film again, two things struck me. The first is that drunkenness is linked to the art of poetry. The perturbation of the senses can be seen, not as a flaw, but as an asset. The second is that alcohol also plays a role in sacred ritual. In all ceremonies, there are libations. I asked you earlier how one could sing chaos. I’d like to ask you the same question now about inebriation.

Bryn Terfel: I’ll let you in on a secret: the swig of alcohol that I drink on stage in the third act is real: it’s spiced mulled wine. At that point in the performance I need to feel that hot, spicy wine in my throat washing away the Thames water. I like to think that it lights up a sparkle of pleasure in my eyes that the audience can see. It’s true that alcohol is a part of ceremonies and rituals and therefore, in a certain fashion, theatre. There have been some great drinkers who were also great actors, by the way. In opera, it’s more complicated … [laughter]

Yannick Haenel: Alcohol is also what separates Falstaff and his exuberance from those sensible bourgeois citizens who only drink water.

Bryn Terfel: Do you really think they only drink water?

Yannick Terfel: That’s what it says in the opera, anyway.

Bryn Terfel: Going back to your novel, I didn’t grasp whether the hero was a beggar or a king…

Yannick Haenel: He’s both a beggar and a king.

Bryn Terfel: I see…

Alexandre Lacroix: While we’re on the subject of alcohol and poetry, Bryn, you’re Welsh, and you live in Wales. The poet Dylan Thomas is Wales’s great writer, which brings us to another popular legend, that of a drunken bard who, they say, died from drinking too much whiskey...

Bryn Terfel: Yes, I really love this poet. In effect, he had a sad life. He spent his days drinking in the pubs in Newquay, on the southern Welsh coast. I imagine that’s where most of the characters in his play Under Milk Wood were born. Some of his verse is strongly present in my mind, in the morning, when I wake up. I’ve often been advised to make a list of my favourite poets, in case a composer ever wanted to write something for me. But to me, there’s something intimidating about Dylan Thomas. He gives me the same impression as certain works by Schubert. I need to be familiar with his texts and work on them for a long time before I can really appreciate them.   

Interviewed by Simon Hatab

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