Last night my wife and I saw Lyric’s endearing production of Verdi’s Falstaff at Chicago Lyric Opera.
When Verdi wrote Falstaff, his valedictory opera, he was nearly 80 years old and with this work the Maestro proved that he still had something to teach the operatic world. Falstaff is among Verdi’s best operas with a sophistication of style, expression, and message. Its use of instrumentation is perhaps the most complex and beautiful of the Verdi repertoire. The interplay between words and music is among the most playful and inventive of any work of Verdi’s works. For example, in Falstaff’s Act III, Scene ii musing on his indignity at the hands of the four ladies:
BARDOLFO: (colla faccia vicinissima alla faccia di Falstaff)
Riforma la tua vita!
Tu puti d’acquavita.
Domine fallo casto!
Ma salvagli l’addomine.
Domine fallo guasto!
Ma salvagli l’addomine.
Fallo punito Domine!
Ma salvagli l’addomine.
Falle pentito Domine!
Ma salvagli l’addomine
In the above sequence in response to the demands for his reform, Falstaff intones Ma salvagli l’addomine (Save my belly!) three times, in a phrase reminiscent of liturgical responses. The play on words, ‘addomine (belly)/Domine (Lord), is both uproariously funny and appropriate to Sir John’s character.
We’d seen this production before, eight years ago, and it’s a good one with Globe-inspired sets and period costumes. As Lyric’s 2007-2008 season has been, this revival production has been plagued with cast replacements, but in the case of Falstaff the artists’ misfortune has been our very good fortune. The replacement for Falstaff, Andrew Shore, is perhaps the foremost exponent of the part of Falstaff performing today, performing the part in prominent opera companies all over the world, both in Verdi’s comic opera and Vaughn Williams’s Sir John in Love. His portrayal of the knight was at once musically stunning, masterful, and funny. Most importantly, Shore is obviously fond of Sir John as we are to be fond of him. It’s too easy to make him wholly repugnant but that diminishes both Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, on which Falstaff is based, and Verdi’s work.
But Andrew Shore wasn’t the only felicitous replacement in this cast. Contralto Meredith Arwady also replaced Bernadette Manca di Nissa in the part of Mistress Quickly when di Nissa decided to retire from singing. Ms. Arwady’s performance was truly wonderful, her Mistress Quickly, the architect of the plot against Falstaff, matching Sir John in vocal power, comedic verve, and indeed, girth. The picture above is from their Act II scene together, virtually a baritone duet as Ms. Arwady emphasized her lower register.
Chilean soprano Veronic Villarroel’s voice was absolutely lovely and she demonstated reall comic flair. Stacey Tappan as Nannetta’s third act aria was ethereally beautiful, a transporting moment. My wife’s and my reaction to the first act quarter among the female principles (a rarity in opera) was identical: charming.
The entire cast was enchanting, funny, and energetic, a quality too often absent from Lyric productions. Over the period of the last 30 years I’ve heard four performances of Falstaff. This was the best, a thoroughly enjoyable opera-going experience.
Following his character’s substantial paunch around the stage, Shore never let us forget that Sir John, for all his vainglory, is no mere buffoon but a man of the world and a knight of the realm. His Falstaff was no less funny for being endearingly human. One’s heart went out to him when he staggered into the Garter Inn, sodden and surly, after his dunking in the Thames.
Olivier Tambosi’s production takes its theatrical cue from the great final fugue where the main characters gather at the footlights to declare life’s but a jest and everyone’s a fool. The director kept the action perking along within Frank Philipp Schloessmann’s unit set, a stylized modern take on a Shakespearean theater, all browns and beiges and cutout houses that allow the lovers Nannetta and Fenton (winningly sung and played by soprano Stacey Tappan and tenor Bryan Griffin) to sneak kisses unobserved.
With his burnished baritone, Daniel excelled in his jealousy monologue as the outraged Ford contemplated Falstaff’s plot to make a cuckold out of him. He’s a real find. Arwady handled the comedy of Quickly as admirably as she did the high seriousness of her role in “Doctor Atomic” here last month, nailing the low Gs with her gallon-jug contralto.
Soprano Veronica Villarroel made a lively, burgundy-toned Alice Ford, who orchestrates Falstaff’s final comeuppance at Herne’s Oak. The role seemed to fit the Chilean-born singer like a perfectly laced Elizabethan shoe, and she made a charming leader of the merry wives.
Lyric turned to its deep bench of present and past Ryan Opera Center members for its Meg Page (soprano Elizabeth De Shong), Dr. Caius (tenor David Cangelosi) and tenor Rodell Rosel and bass Andrew Funk as Falstaff’s scruffy cohorts Bardolfo and Pistola. Tappan turned Nannetta’s invocation of the forest spirits into gorgeous vocal moonlight.
Conductor Andrew Davis made a veritable vocal symphony of Verdi’s miraculous score, shaping the bustling ensembles with fine clarity and point, always flexible in his pacing, and attentive to detail. The music director made his fine orchestra and chorus full partners in the richly comic proceedings.
You’re going to have a grand time at this “Falstaff.”
Lyric set the bar high with this theatrical and philosophical comedy, and it responded resourcefully when three lead singers dropped out. Ambrogio Maestri, a much-talked-about young Italian, had to cancel his U.S. debut after his father died last month. Superb Swedish baritone Peter Mattei withdrew as Falstaff’s foil, Ford, when his wife fell ill. Then veteran contralto Bernadette Manca di Nissa, who was to reprise her Mistress Quickly from Lyric’s 1999 staging, chose to retire from the stage.
Their replacements range from fine to very, very good. But in an opera essentially without arias and other traditional set pieces and which relies on subtle weaving of musical fragments and sly, highly literary humor, there’s a noticeable difference between very good and great. And those not familiar with this favorite of connoisseurs may have trouble this year getting what the affection for this brilliant portrait of a rogue drawn from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and the Henry IV plays is all about.
Needless to say I disagree with this assessment. I heard Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff eight years ago at Lyric. He has a better voice than Shore but his Falstaff wasn’t as good. He didn’t have the love or the humor. I found his Falstaff rather repellant.
Andrew Davis, conducting what the official press release calls his ‘’favorite Verdi opera”, keeps the evening well paced in this reviewer’s opinion. His tempi, though, may have been a little slow for those on stage; the singers consistently tried to rush the Act One finale. Granted: the Act One finale is incredibly difficult to keep together, and the cast does a noble job of trying, perhaps, though, it could stand to watch the bouncing head of hair up front a little more. Still, the opera itself is sung very well across the board, the stagecraft solid, and the evening spent in the Civic Opera House absorbing Verdi’s last masterpiece is well spent.
I think this reviewer’s criticisms are fair.