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Time to laugh? 

Verdi's Falstaff a gleeful affirmation of life -- even in the face of mortality

It seems blasphemous to laugh when the shadows of the dead still inhabit the concrete dust and the twisted steel that proved unequal to its final task.

Jay Leno and David Letterman went off the air the week of the tragedy, and when they returned they dispensed with their usual jokes. Leno's voice broke through his somber monologue. Letterman and Dan Rather were weeping on camera. How can anyone be merry when the comics are crying and the seen-it-all news anchors can't finish their sentences?

"The only way we can live in a serious world is to smile and laugh with each other, and make the best of a troubled time," says Fred Scott, artistic director and conductor of the Atlanta Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff, opening this week. It is either a very bad or a very, very good time to be opening a comedy. The opera company's vote is with the latter.

Falstaff is one of only two comedies composed by Verdi, who is far better known for his many masterful tragedies. By all accounts, Verdi, who was in his late 70s and had supposedly "retired," had more fun composing Falstaff than any other piece. And despite comedy's reputation as "art-lite," the score is one of his most accomplished. It has a unity of architecture that had never before been seen in an art form more prone at the time to stitched-on arias showcasing superstar divas. In Falstaff, the music and the story are an indivisible whole. If only humanity could approach such solidarity.

Sir John Falstaff -- a lusty, comic con-man who is at the center of Prince Hal's many youthful indiscretions -- first appeared in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II. He dies in that telling, but Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the character so much that she insisted Shakespeare write another play for him (sort of the Elizabethan version of Alien Resurrection). The plot of Falstaff, written by the librettist Arrigo Boito, comes mostly from that sequel, Merry Wives of Windsor, though Boito simplified (and many say improved) the story to fit the operatic form.

In Boito's libretto, Falstaff is an errant (to put it mildly) knight who, low on cash, decides to relieve two wealthy women of their fortunes by professing to both his most chivalrous affection. Falstaff clearly knew nothing about the grapevine. The women discover that they are both being wooed by the same man and decide to turn the con back against him. The husband (yes, the husband) of one of them joins in for good measure. As the story romps along, Falstaff gets stuffed in a pile of odorous laundry, dumped into the Thames and beaten up by fairies gone bad. But in the end, all is forgiven, and even Falstaff has a laugh at his own expense.

Why did Verdi, then the acknowledged demi-god of tragic opera, turn at the close of his life to a story with such a sweet worldview and a feel-good ending?

"It's called getting older," says Marc Verzatt, stage director for Falstaff, "and looking back at everything that ... you thought was a matter of life and death at the time. But with the acquisition of a vast expanse of years and experience, you can look and see what it is that is important."

Verdi knew he was nearing the end of his life. He even suggested to Boito that he find another composer. He feared he would die before completing the score. Yet he responded to imminent mortality not with the tragic view of Otello or La Forza del Destino, but with a gleeful affirmation of merriment and bliss.

"Life can be enjoyable," says Scott. "Life must be enjoyable. Everybody must laugh and cry and hug each other all the time."

John Falstaff, performed in this production by Savannah native David Malis, is far more than a clown, far more than a fool offering us momentary forgetfulness of life's many afflictions. Though a remorseless rapscallion incapable of self-doubt, he forgives all others as freely as he forgives himself. Joy for him is the ultimate (maybe the only) good. Given the many horrors that "morality" and self-sacrifice have permitted and committed, maybe Falstaff had it right.

While watching the firefighters, the ironworkers, the National Guard and all the other highest heroes of our current calamity, many of us have felt we weren't doing enough to help. But the damage is not limited to lower Manhattan, to one side of the Pentagon, to that field in Pennsylvania. It is not even limited to the lovers and lifelong friends of the dead.

All of us have breathed a lungful or two of the smoke and dust that rose from the fires. All of us have tasted death on our tongues. And all of us can play a role in replacing the foul flavor with something sweet. We can all, as Verzatt says, help those around us to "feel alive and connected to other people."

"This is all about keeping the life going," says Scott. "If you can imagine 4,000 people smiling at the same time, that ain't bad."

Falstaff plays Thurs., Sept. 27, at 8 p.m., Sat., Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 30 at 3 p.m. $18-$126. The Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. Tickets available through TicketMaster, 404-817-8700.

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