Aspen Music Festival 2011 (8) – “Falstaff” and Recitals by Denk, DeYoung and the American Brass Quintet

Aspen Music Festival (8): Verdi’s Falstaff; Jeremy Denk plays Ligeti and Bach; American Brass Quintet; Michelle DeYoung sings Brahms. 29.7.2011 (HS)

Noel Bouley as Falstaff . Photo © Alex Irvin.

In a four-day span that featured star turns by pianist Jeremy Denk and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, plus the annual recital by the American Brass Quintet, the Opera Theater’s deft production of Verdi’s Falstaff stands as the week’s most rewarding and crowd-pleasing achievement.

What makes this one special is how neatly conductor Tomáš Netopil (music director of the Prague opera) and the cast captured a tone of deadpan humor without overdoing the serious moments in Verdi’s most subtle score. The audience Thursday for the first of three performances filled only about three-quarters of the seats in the Wheeler Opera House, but they left grinning at an evening that galloped along convincingly, from the orchestra’s opening blatt of a raspberry to its final guffaw.

This production runs Acts I and II without an intermission, but the hour and 15 minutes whizzes along and actually helps complete a dramatic arc. The scenery uses an open frame of metal pipes and a few doors to depict the Garter Inn and the Fords’ house, and frames the Act III forest scene with flats suggesting a giant oak. Simple costumes define the wealthy characters, and outfit Falstaff and his knaves in something barely better than tatters. Director Gregory Fortner mined comic gold in scenes such as Falstaff’s immersion in stinky laundry, hiding from Alice’s pursuing husband. The fairy scene in the finale features hovering green lights and expanding wings.

There are some major voices in the mostly well-cast company, including bass-baritone Noel Bouley in the title role. A recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati, Bouley’s commanding presence creates sympathy and real humanity for a three-dimensional character (and he knows how to work a fat suit for comic effect), plus he sings the role with a freshness only a few famous Falstaffs can. Another singer who seems destined for a big career, Golda Schultz (Rosina in last summer’s Ghosts of Versailles), brings a burnished soprano and a winning personality to Alice, and marks her as a Verdi soprano to watch. Tenor Rafael Moras deployed a sweet tenor as Fenton, nicely matched with soprano Deanna Breiwick as Nannetta. Carolyn Sproule (Meg), Oswaldo Iraheta (Bardolfo) and Jonathan Lasch (Ford) also made strong impressions.

Ensembles kept up the pace, except for a few bobbles in timing, and struck good balances among the singers and between them and the orchestra, not an inconsiderable task in this opera. The final scene, with its dizzying shift between solo moments, ensembles and individual conversations, came off brilliantly. The final fugue melded confident singing and big sound with accuracy, a potent combination.

The week started with DeYoung singing a set of Brahms songs on the Monday night faculty recital in Harris Hall, her only public performance during her visit to Aspen. There was a sense of her reining in her sizable mezzo-soprano to create a balance with Elizabeth Buccheri’s sensitive piano collaboration. Brahms’ two Alto Lullabies and a selection of four wistful love songs represent something of a departure from her usual dramatic fare, but DeYoung’s outsized personality and her attention to the text and musical details communicate so easily with an audience that the essence came through.

Denk loves a challenge, and his solo program in the tent Tuesday night was right in his wheelhouse, especially in the first half, Books I and II of Ligeti’s Études. One of the music world’s most outspoken thinkers, Denk dug into these iconoclastic, eclectic, dissonant and technically demanding works with impressive zeal. Just playing the thunderstorms of notes is hard enough, but Denk managed to shape each of these into a coherent musical statement, painting the colors, calibrating balances, and most importantly, keeping the audience rapt and, yes, entertained. It was bravura stuff.

Following that with Bach’s Goldberg Variations is like trying to dance after running a half-marathon, and not surprisingly he eliminated a goodly number of the repeats and fudged a few notes here and there in the faster passages. By whipping through the rapid bits so quickly, too, scales became smears and the dance rhythms that underpin each variation sometimes failed to spring. But the slow movements were absolutely gorgeous, even the aria and its reprise, which he ornamented extravagantly. Every time the pace slowed enough for the music to breathe, Denk’s sensitivity to nuance and shape came through and the music became much more expressive.

One may not think of nuance with brass music but that was the most impressive part of the American Brass Quintet’s evening in Harris Hall Wednesday. Chesapeake, a new work from composer David Sampson, who has written several other pieces for the ensemble, played up the expressiveness possible with brass instruments. But even more so was the warm, rich tone and impeccable balance in the quintet’s stunningly beautiful legato playing in three Italian madrigals arranged by lead trumpet Raymond Mase.

The concert finished with Street Song for Symphonic Brass, a piece Michael Tilson Thomas wrote in 1988 for the Empire Brass and expanded in 1996 into a 12-piece ensemble for the brass section of the London Symphony. Members of the Third Street Brass Quintet joined the ABQ for the 16-minute piece that reveled in all-American sounds reminiscent of Gershwin, Copland and Ellington, filtered through the eclectic conductor-composer’s fertile mind. The well-crafted piece was as compelling for the way it developed its themes and elements as for the swagger in the way the musicians played it.

Harvey Steiman