FAIRFAX CITY, Va., October 12, 2013 – September and October have been pretty much wall-to-wall Wagner and Verdi everywhere, as Washington area performing arts organizations open their 2013-2014 seasons.
Let’s see: Wolf Trap Opera got a jump on the Verdi bandwagon a bit early with its August production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at The Barns. Washington National Opera (WNO) fired up the Wagner engines with its season-opening production of “Tristan and Isolde.” The National Symphony Orchestra chimed in this weekend with its fine concert opera performance of Act III of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” WNO returned this weekend with the opening performance of its new production of Verdi’s “La forza del destino” (“The Force of Destiny”).
And the visiting, Norfolk-based Virginia Opera company wraps up its season-opening production of—you guessed it—Verdi’s “Falstaff” tomorrow, October 13, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.
Why all the Verdi and Wagner hubbub? Simple. 2013 marks the bicentennial of both great composers’ births, giving various ensembles a great excuse to put works by these popular composers on the season schedule. Everyone seems to have forgotten Sir Benjamin Britten’s birthday centennial, also this year. But at least they’ve been paying some attention to this great English modernist and opera composer out at the Castleton Festival over the past few seasons.
Verdi’s final opera, “Falstaff,” as we’ve just noted, is not exactly a stranger here. The Virginia Opera’s take on Verdi’s last and perhaps warmest opera is distinguished by its mediocre sets and wonderful singing. On balance, we’re generally happy dealing with the former if we can get the latter, and that’s pretty much the way it is here in a production that’s mainly distinguished by its fine case of vocalists.
“Falstaff,” Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera (1893) was first performed when he was eighty years old. Its delightful libretto—an ingenious and rather creative squashing together of Sir John’s antics as collected from “Henry IV” parts I and II and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”—was confected by poet-composer Arrigo Boito. Boito also took extreme poetic license by inserting a key “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into the opera’s boisterous finale, transforming the oafish Bottom into the equally maladept Falstaff in a way that seems entirely appropriate.
Virginia Opera’s “Falstaff” moves events considerably forward in time to roughly late-Victorian England, around the time Verdi actually composed his operatic take on the Bard’s bawdiest comic character. The metaphor of the production casts Falstaff as a stage actor who eventually dons a fat suit and actually becomes his character.
That’s actually a decent idea. Problem is that the entirety of this play within a play takes place on Russell Craig’s set, which is crafted to resemble the dingy, cinderblock, backstage area that’s a familiar place to most actors—the space where they gather, gossip, and hang out before walking out into the stage magic that the public actually sees.
Here, all we see is duo-tone cinderblock, a rickety dressing table, a too-often-used tea-cart, and tons and tons of baskets—though we do get occasional cut-out trees. It’s all just visually boring, in spite of the Mr. Craig’s colorful and more or less authentic period costumes.
We will, however, grant one creative checkmark for the penultimate scene in Act I where the entire cast turns all the baskets into a kind of creeping, Transformers-like war machine operated by much of the cast as they slink toward the place in Ford’s house where they think Falstaff may be concealing his formidable girth. Shades of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood! It was a great sight gag.
We reiterate, though that even given our issues with the sets, we think this production is more than blessed with a talented cast almost universally capable of delivering character and song in a delightful way. That’s particularly true in the chaotic finale.
Baritone Stephen Powell had an interesting take on Sir John Falstaff as he morphed his character from a snooty, dismissive actor into the very person of Sir John himself, demonstrating his genuinely sophisticated acting chops.
Vocally, Mr. Powell has a dominant, authoritative instrument but capably works falsetto and humorous tics into his routine as well. He is quite simply a marvelous, fully realized Falstaff, which is, after all, what this opera needs: a vain buffoon who’s bigger, fatter, and more outrageous than life. With a Falstaff like Mr. Powell, everything else in the production pretty much falls into place.
Of course, other characters are key as well, since Sir John doesn’t have the sense to avoid the many individuals who are much smarter than he, most particularly the ladies. Imagining himself as still irresistible to women, his key mistake is his attempt to extort money and sex from Merry Windsor Wives Alice Ford (soprano Elizabeth Caballero), Meg Page (mezzo-soprano Courtney Miller), and their neighbor and chief plotter Mistress Quickly (mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero).
Figuring out almost instantly what their corpulent would-be suitor’s love letters are really all about, they hatch not one but two schemes meant to teach Sir John a lesson for all time. Not to mention making him look like a blithering idiot in the process.
Though these three roles are not huge, they’re nicely realized by three female vocalists who also possess an excellent sense of comic timing.
Also part of this female cabal is soprano Amanda Opuszynski as Alice Ford’s daughter Nanetta. As in the Marx Brothers’ film comedies, where Hollywood always found the need to insert a secondary love story and plot, so to in Boito’s amalgamated Shakespearean recipe in which Nanetta’s true love, Fenton (tenor Aaron Blake) is being dissed by her father, Old Ford (baritone Weston Hurt) who wants to marry her off to the sniveling Dr. Caius (tenor Ryan Connelly).
In the end, Nanetta and Alice, her mom, conspire to thwart Ford’s intentions, setting off a parallel embarrassment for Ford in the finale which makes things even more fun.
Although neither of their roles get a lot of time in “Falstaff,” both Mr. Blake and Ms. Opuszynksi were delightful in their roles, the former for a clarion clear and sweetly romantic tenor, and Ms. Opuszynksi for her sprightly, silvery and very youthful soprano.
Weston Hurt excelled as the semi-villain Ford who ends up looking nearly as foolish as Falstaff in the end, and his diction and phrasing, like Mr. Powell’s, were both letter perfect.
In the smaller roles of Falstaff’s dissolute and unreliable sidekicks—Bardolfo and Pistola in the Italian—tenor Jeffrey Halili and bass Jeffrey Tucker were delightfully two-faced, and fully capable of indulging in the occasional slapstick comedy that can bring a production like this to life.
As Dr. Caius, however, tenor Ryan Connally was often somewhat difficult to hear over the full orchestra, and his character seemed somewhat less than fully realized.
At key moments of the opera, the chorus adds humor and heft to the comic proceedings. Virginia Opera’s chorus generally excelled in both and seemed to be having a genuinely good time of it, which is always a big plus in any comic production.
Best of all, though, was the backdrop they provided for all the key soloists at the final curtain of “Falstaff” where, in an unexpected and brilliant stroke, Verdi presents, as a coda, a massive, complex and absolutely brilliant vocal fugue to conclude the show. Every time you hear it, it’s a surprise.
But in this production—whether at the behest of conductor Joseph Rescigno, stage director Steven Lawless, or both—the soloists put on a tremendous performance, gesturing each other for cues and picking up the virtual vocal baton in a self-conscious manner resembling live actor enjoying their own show. Not only did this neatly wrap up the behind-the-scenes stage metaphor of the production. It also aided and abetted a series of amazingly clean vocal entrances, making this one of the best “Falstaff Fugues” we’ve had the pleasure of hearing in some time.
Under Maestro Rescigno’s baton, the full, Romantic sound of the orchestra, which consists of members of the Virginia Symphony, couldn’t have been better. And better still, for the most part, they didn’t overshadow the basses and baritones, sometimes an issue in Verdi operas.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four.)
Final performance here of Virginia Opera’s “Falstaff” is Sunday, October 13 at 2 p.m. at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax City, Virginia. Tickets $44-86. For tickets and information, visit the Virginia Opera website; contact tickets.com; or call 888-945-2468.
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