VIENNA, Va., August 10, 2013 – Verdi’s final opera, “Falstaff,” is not exactly a stranger to Washington area audiences. But the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s bracing chamber production of this substanstial work, now in its two-weekend run at The Barns, might very well be the best one we’ve seen in recent memory. Boasting fine singing by its youthful cast, all of whom possess equal comic and slapstick skills, it’s a memorable and enjoyable way for WTOC to wrap up its three-opera summer season.
“Falstaff,” Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera (1893) and his rowdiest hat tip to the Bard, was first performed when the composer was eighty years old. Its delightful libretto—an ingenious mash-up of Sir John’s antics as seen in “Henry IV” parts I and II and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”—was the creation of poet-composer Arrigo Boito, who also took the liberty of working the spirit of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into the opera’s boisterous finale.
Opera fans here will likely remember that both the Washington National Opera and Russia’s Kirov brought their own unique productions of Verdi’s Shakespeare-based comic masterpiece to life at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in recent years. But the results of both efforts, sadly, proved mixed.
The Russians burdened their production with a heavy-handed dose of oh-so-clever directorial vanity, worsened by a dismal, droopy lead soloist whose Falstaff seemed to sleepwalk through the title role. WNO’s production likewise was burdened by a lame directorial concept even though the singers did considerably better than their Russian counterparts.
When WTOC decided to give “Falstaff” a go, they faced their own issues. The lingering effects of the Great Recession are making it tougher these days to justify mounting a big, late Romantic opera like this one in the Filene Center, given the current budgets required to rent showy grand opera sets and pay the freight for a full orchestra.
Already having lined up just the right singers, however, the company hit upon a simple but ingenious two part solution: mount “Falstaff” in the smaller, acoustically intimate space of the Barns; and make use of Jonathan Dove’s clever chamber orchestra-size musical arrangement to accommodate the minimal number of musicians who can be squeezed into The Barns’ cramped orchestra pit.
The result: Friday evening’s opening performance of the opera transformed it into something that seemed entirely fresh and new. No longer distant figures lost on a massive stage and drowned out on occasion by Verdi’s huge orchestral complement, Shakespeare’s familiar and beloved comic characters seemed unusually up close and personal to all in attendance.
And that describes the singing as well, no longer obscured as it often is by that big orchestra. The chamber accompaniment worked like magic, allowing Friday’s audience to hear the singers with considerably greater clarity than is normally the case.
Add to this the charming if occasionally bizarre costuming as well as the production’s spare but highly evocative movable set, and voilà! One of this summer’s most entertaining and rewarding musical evenings. “Falstaff,” at roughly three hours’ running time, is a bit on the long side. But this production was so loaded with good music, good singing and good fun that few bothered to consult their watches while the players were on stage.
Bass-baritone Craig Colclough was quite simply sensational as the considerably larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff, the dissolute knight-errant whose appetites,girth-control issues and amorous misadventures drive the entire production.
Mr. Colclough wears his greasy Sir John fat suit like a second skin, becoming the very embodiment of his character in word, deed, and appearance. He also knows how to adapt a Rossini-like basso-buffo vocal approach to Verdi’s late-Romantic era, creating a multifaceted musical and comical character that gives this production its drive as well as its overwhelming sense of fun.
Sir John makes his first big mistake of the evening by tangling with Alice Ford (soprano Tracy Cox), Meg Page (mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule), and their pal and confidante Mistress Quickly (mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak)—those madcap Merry Wives of Windsor. Figuring out in the early innings that Falstaff’s love notes are far from sincere, they hatch a pair of plots designed to teach Sir John a lesson—make that two lessons—that he’ll never forget. All three of these merry roles are sung with relish.
It’s a particular delight to observe in this production the rapid development of Ms. Gawrysiak’s career which the Wolf Trap Opera hellped to launch. (We enjoyed her comic turn as the Wicked Witch in Virginia Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel” a couple of Christmases back.) A Wolf Trap Opera alumna, she was invited to join this production in the key role of Quickly, and she adds real wit to her performance with an outsize personality and a plummy, reassuring voice, both of which aim to thwart Sir John at every turn.
Also notable: Soprano Mireille Asselin, whose eager yet charming vocal approach to the character Nanetta—Alice’s daughter—provides some of the loveliest, most seductive moments in this production; tenor Matthew Grills, whose fumbling but always-willing-to-please and faithful Fenton is Nanetta’s love interest; and baritone Norman Garrett, whose deep, somber instrument proves an excellent foil for the part of Alice’s hulking, jealous husband Ford.
Juan José de Leon, Brenton Ryan, and Aaron Sorensen also sparkle, and occasionally leer, in their smaller comic roles as Dr. Caius, Bardolfo, and Pistola.
Wolf Trap’s young studio artists appear in the finale as forest sprites—and as the chorus—adding depth and brilliance to the soloists in Verdi’s exciting and amazing fugal wrap-up.
Conductor Dean Williamson does a marvelous job conducting and shaping the sound of his small orchestra to give the music a big but not overwhelming feel. At the same time, he’s also careful not to neglect his singers. Hat tips as well to the always-skillful set design of Erhard Rom and the low-key but expert stage direction of Tomer Zvulun.
All in all, we’d advise both WNO and the Kirov to look long and hard at the energy, drive, and musical quality of this jolly production if they want to see how Verdi’s “Falstaff” should really be done. WTOC proves that if you have the right singer-actors for the parts, as well as a conductor and a director neither of whom feels compelled to strut their stuff, you really don’t need a big budget to stage this opera. Verdi and Boito have already taken care of the details.
And nobody did it better.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars out of four.)
Remaining performances of “Falstaff,” all staged in The Barns: Sunday, August 11 at 3 p.m.; Wednesday, August 14 at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, August 17 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Wolf Trap Opera’s web pages at: http://www.wolftrap.org/Opera.aspx
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