Living large is an understatement for Sir John Falstaff, the obese, drunken lecher whose personality and lifestyle are as timeless as infidelity and extra desserts. Ending life well was the goal of Giuseppe Verdi. He wanted a hit comedy so—through collaboration with librettist Arrigo Boito—produced a final offering that has won the hearts of audiences since its 1893 première and continues to challenge directors and performers to find the magical mix of music, design and humour required to keep pace with the considerable genius of the creators.
The return of this version (first seen in 1982, a co-production of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Teatro Comunale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association—globalization ahead of its time) to Los Angeles is further testimony to the vision and “solutions” of the original vision. Conductor Kent Nagano and director Stephen Lawless have added their insights and ideas to the sturdy foundation; the cast, chorus, dancers and production team have tarted up the old girl and cobbled together a performance that, like the copious draughts of wine soaked up by the wayward knight, lifts the spirit and—no doubt—will improve with age.
Nagano led his charges with poise and economy of movement. The orchestra played with authority—particularly the oh-so-exposed first violins, whose trips to the stratosphere were a pleasure rather than the all-too-common nervous excursion to the bridge; only a too-frantic-by-half piccolo gave any cause for concern. However, the stage/pit cohesion was less successful. The Act I ensembles never found the groove and became more a comedy of terrors; similarly the Act III chorus work was in tune but just a tad “untogether”—subsequent performances should improve the on-time arrival rate.
The design team put up a magnificent tableau: Hayden Griffin’s sets were a model of form and function—the Walt Whitman tree spectacular, the Windsor room suitably dour. The cast was beautifully decked out thanks to Michael Stennett’s sense of style and fun—anyone with a chapeau fetish will return for a second helping. Be sure to watch out for the black-hat follies, as some of the players’ head gear morphs into Masonic code. Mark Jonathan’s lighting, with TV-too-hot “burn” during Falstaff’s first trip up the staircase, find-me-if-you-can follow spots, and starlight skies that appear to swing, is still a work in progress.
Little wonder the capacity audience cheered Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff, his “silly” walk, facial dexterity and laundry basket pratfalls kept the chuckle machine working overtime; his fluid power and ease of projection in any range (including a hilarious falsetto) made this a near-ideal realization: all that’s required is some aging so that his vocal youth doesn’t belie his old man demeanour.
As Alice Ford, Kallen Esperian improved over time, bringing an emotional candour to her Act III aria that was impressive. Unfortunately, her top register has an edge that jars and is made all the more grating when sat side by side with Nannetta (Celena Shafer), who soared through her role with confidence and sensitivity. Jane Henschel was the capable messenger of deceit (Mistress Quickly) and Milena Kitic—an equally capable accomplice—looked just a bit out of place when required to accessorize with a hip flask.
As the servant-class love in waiting, Daniil Shtoda’s Fenton was a constant pleasure upstairs or down—even declaiming his beautifully crafted love to Nannetta as the happy pair were, literally, benched. Only a little less force at the climaxes keep this fine tenor away from exceptionality.
Bardolph (Greg Fedderly) and sidekick Pistol (Dean Peterson)—whether sending up religious canon or switching sides to the highest bidder—were superb.
Lawless kept the proceedings moving well and seems at his best when (assisted by Peggy Hickey’s knowing choreography) the stage is jammed with bodies frantically searching for the adulterer-to-be, or bringing out the fairies (and, always ahead of his time, Verdi/Boito blessed a same-sex marriage). Yet many of the details were at odds with the overall scheme: their still-attached cousins remaining unmoved on the hedge, the on-again off-again leaf blower didn’t work; more troubling was the Carry on Gang action when Falstaff totally skirts foreplay, lifts Alice’s dress and prepares to “press his case” at their first private moment. Sure, it got the laugh, but also dragged down the tone from saucy fun to ribald raciness, demonstrating confusion of intent from which the production never recovered. JWR