Giuseppe Verdi, with Libretto by Arigo Boito
|Michael Orlinsky, Kiril Havezov & Richard Zeller|
“In this great abdomen are a thousand tongues that proclaim my name … This is my kingdom.” With a measure of self-worth and a confidence in his own attraction to the fairer sex that are almost as mammoth as his rotund belly, Falstaff sings with from his tavern bench as if it were his royal throne. In Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, the perennial Shakespearean favorite through the ages is about to have that inflated view of himself severely tested as he with unashamed gluttony pursues not one, but two wealthy, married women – women who will turn out to be much the more clever and creative in their own schemes to teach Sir John a lesson he will never forget – at least not until the next jug of mead he drowns down his massive gut.
To bring it sixty-third season to a close, West Bay Opera pulls out all comedic and tongue-in-cheek stops to present a Falstaff that is laugh-out-loud hilarious while also musically ‘Verdi-beautiful.’ Returning to Palo Alto for his eighth, annual production from his home base in Mexico City, Stage Director Ragnar Conde finds a host of ways to ensure the hilarity of Arigo Bonito’s libretto matches the magnificence that Music Conductor José Luis Moscovich attains from the ten principals, seventeen choristers, and twenty-six orchestra members (the last playing from five different locations/levels). The result is an evening of rambunctious and riotous revelry accented with a stage full of voices melodically glorious in a Falstaff where a smaller-than-usual operatic venue affords the audience up-close chances to feel as if we are right in the middle of all the trickery targeting poor, ol’ Sir John Falstaff.
Richard Zeller brings his big-sounding baritone into full play as he barrels through with rum-reddened nose the antics that his Sir John employs to set up his hoped-for duo-trysts with two women whom he believes “keep the keys to the money box” of their rich husbands. As John fills his belly while dreaming how to satisfy his lust for love, he is clearly also vested in filling his pockets with the gold he needs to continue his life of tavern luxury.
Everything Sir John does is hilariously over-blown and wonderfully over-done, from the voluminous layers of clothing he dons to the grand sweeps of his arms used to accent his words to a mouth that can open in cavernous proportions both to eat and to sing forth his propositions and promises. So intent is he on his own greatness and so hungry to appease his ever-gnawing appetite for a beautiful woman’s kisses and her husband’s gold that he is as blind as a bat to all the obvious schemes playing out around him that are meant as righteous and roisterous revenge for his own devilry of sending the exact same two letters of love to two women who are best of friends.
|Patrice Houston, Anatasia Malliaras, Taylor Haines & Veronica Jensen|
Taylor Haines and Veronica Jenson are the two desired flowers that Sir John hopes to pluck of their innocence and their money, playing Alice Ford and her friend Meg Page, respectively. The scene where the two friends first discover that each has received exactly the same letter as the other with only their names changed – letters with such Falstaff lines as “You are the merry wife; I am the merry conqueror” – becomes musically and comically a thoroughly entertaining mixture of mocking Sir John and of planning how to lure him into a trap he cannot escape. When joined by Alice’s other friend, Mistress Quickly, and Alice’s daughter, Nannetta, the four women join in intricately countering melodies as they push their plotting into firm plans.
|Veronica Jensen & Taylor Haines|
As events unfold and schemes become ever more silly, Taylor Haines as Alice in particular has a number of opportunities to ring forth in her soprano brilliance that rises in its clarity and beauty above the farcical events on the stage itself. Sometimes cheeky, sometime coy, her Alice sings in just the right manner to fool Falstaff into believing she might actually love him while at the same time her voice and facials are laughingly declaring just how much a fool she knows he is. Notes flow displaying both the powerful strength of her character and the sureness of her abilities to outsmart the men around her. As it turns out, not only must she teach Falstaff that there is a Renaissance MeToo Movement bubbling up in her garden, but she must also do the same for her too-quick-to-distrust husband.
During a disguised move his wife has helped plot in order to fool Falstaff into a planned rendezvous with the Thames, Alice’s husband Ford gets himself caught up in believing that his wife actually is planning on a secret tête-à-tête with the balloon-shaped scoundrel. Krassen Karagiozov as Ford shows up at Falstaff’s chosen abode – the Garner Inn – in the guise of “Signor Fontana.” “Fontana” is a supposed admirer of Alice, offering greedy Falstaff a bag of gold to seduce a supposedly shy Alice in order to ready her for his own approaches. Ford’s “Fontana” employs wonderfully animated slyness to fool the gullible Sir John who almost slobbers in his anticipation of earning money for an illicit affair that he thinks he is already scheduled to have in the next hour.
The rich, rolling tones of Ford’s baritone explode with ignited punch once he believes Falstaff is actually going to have such an affair with his wife, reaching into impressive falsettos to express his mounting, quick-judged jealousy. The soon-to-be cuckolded husband that Falsetto had earlier jollily described to “Fontana,” is exactly the horn-wearing victim that the real Ford now believes himself to be. In this rip-roaring scene and in the ensuing shenanigans, Mr. Karagiozov continues to shine both musically and comically.
|Richard Zeller & Patrice Houston|
Playing major roles in setting up and executing the traps for Falstaff is Mistress Quickly, a name and persona Verdi borrows from Shakespeare, transforming Quickly from the Bard’s malapropism-prone inn-keeper and sometimes friend of Falstaff now to be a round and jolly lady of society and loyal friend of Alice. Patrice Houston is deliciously funny in her tempting seduction of Falstaff to fall not once, but twice to the fates of embarrassment he will undergo in the hands of her friend, Alice. Better yet, Ms. Houston’s deep and beguiling mezzo-soprano has a range fun and furious that varies from mocking mimics of the easily-fooled Falstaff to thunderous warnings of approaching doom when she scares Falstaff that Ford is about to discover him in the arms of Alice – all of course a pre-planned scheme to get the giant into an even-more giant basket of dirty laundry. Each time she is on the stage, Patrice Houston brings energy, frivolity, and vocals that reach down deep to tickle and to impress us as audience.
While all the hoopla, disguises, and grand chases are occurring in order to teach Falstaff a thing or two, Verdi and Boito have included a love story involving the Fords’ daughter, Nannetta. Father Ford is trying to shut down the love-birds while Mother Alice is intent that Nannette shall marry the man she loves and certainly not the old, rich nincompoop her husband has chosen (a stumbling, ridiculous Dr. Caius played with bumbling brilliance by Michael Mendelsohn). (Wouldn’t you think that Ford would finally realize his only fate is to be out-smarted by his more-clever wife?)
Anatasia Malliaras is one of the evening’s true joys vocally. As Nannetta, she time and again takes Verdi’s runs of trickling notes and brings joyous interpretations. Her soprano so easily glides, then hangs, and then ever-slightly trembles as she sings of her love for Fenton, played by tenor Dane Suarez who has moments of his own accomplished vocals but also seems somewhat strained in several of his passages.
In this finale of Verdi’s career, the role of the Chorus is not a major one; but when called upon, Chorus Master Bruce Olstad ensures the voices blend with style and sparkle. Chorus members really get to join in the fun in a full-on, frantic search where Ford thinks he is about to find Falstaff making love to his wife, just one more scene directed by Ragnar Conde that milks every opportunity to increase the gag and the frolic.
|The Cast of Falstaff|
The three acts, each with two scenes, play out on a stage designed by Peter Crompton where a middle, drop-back section and steps up to its raised position provides some depth and variety possibilities as we move from inn to the Ford home to its garden and finally to Windsor Park. But it is in Peter Crompton’s Disney-esque animated projections that a major element of the evening’s hilarity and sheer ‘wow’ lies. A large portrait comes to life as its bearded resident makes faces watching Falstaff being fooled by Ford as “Fontana.” Huge, sculpted shrubs in the shapes of animals dance across the English gardens projected in the three-dimensions of the stage’s walls while skies beautifully change their hues as day proceeds through is stages of light and cloud changes. What cannot be projected on the walls populates the stage itself through the flasks, mugs, and even baguettes provided by properties designer Shirley Benson.
Abra Berman brings to yet another Bay Area stage her over-the-top creativity and jolly-good fun in designing the costumes of this Henry V era of England, having particular whimsy with those that the larger-than-life Sir John dons. Lisa Cross adds her period touches in wigs and make-up while Steve Mannshardt once again proves himself to be lighting designer extraordinaire. Finally, designer Giselle Lee has ensured both effects and balance of sound support the beautiful music of singers and orchestra as well as enhance the frolicking story.
As a long-time subscriber to San Francisco opera, I can attest it is absolutely a joy to attend a production by such a stellar company as West Bay Opera where the vastly more intimate setting of the Lucie Stern Center allows me to see clearly facial expressions without binoculars. To enjoy close-up the acting as well as the singing is an opportunity that all opera faithful should avail themselves. And for the die-hard musical-theatre buff who avoids operas, I can think of no better time to jump in and become opera-hooked than the Verdi opera that at the end of the nineteenth century clearly set the path for future musical comedies on Broadway and the West End.
Rating: 5 E
Falstaff continues with performances May 26 and June 1 and 2 in production by West Bay Opera at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available online at www.wbopera.org, by calling the box office at 650- 424-9999, or by stopping by the West Bay Opera box office, 221 Lambert Avenue, Palo Alto.
Photos by Otak Jum
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