Frequent Surprises in Terfel’s Breathtaking “Falstaff”

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Falstaff: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Opera, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 10.10.2013 (HS)

MW - HS - Falstaff photo
Greg Fedderly (Bardolfo), Bryn Terfel (Falstaff) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Pistola). ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Falstaff: Bryn Terfel
Alice Ford: Ainhoa Arteta
Nannetta: Heidi Stober
Dame Quickly: Meredith Arwady
Fenton:Francesco DeMuro
Ford: Fabio Capitanucci
Meg Page: Renée Rapier
Bardolfo: Greg Fedderly
Dr. Caius: Joel Sorensen
Pistola: Andrea Silvestrelli

Director: Olivier Tambosi
Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Fight Director: Dave Maier

Once in a great while an opera star creates such a perfect portrayal both dramatically and vocally that the singer disappears and all we see and hear are the character. In my lifetime I can recall Placido Domingo as Otello (at San Francisco Opera), Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes (with Royal Opera Covent Garden in Los Angeles) and Karita Mattila as Salome (at the Metropolitan Opera). Bryn Terfel as Verdi’s Falstaff may just top them all.

He was the main reason, if not the only one, for the resounding success of Falstaff in its opening performance Tuesday at San Francisco Opera. There was the nuanced and vigorous conducting of Nicola Luisotti, the company’s music director, who seemed to catch every opportunity to illuminate the riches of Verdi’s score. And a strong supporting cast topped by the volcanic Mistress Quickly of Meredith Arwady.

But for 2 hours 40 minutes the Welsh bass baritone disappeared into the role of Shakespeare’s gluttonous, thieving, lying, womanizing old knight. And it wasn’t just the costumes fitted around an outsized false belly, nor the extensive makeup and vaguely clownish hair. Or even the clever unit set, a sort of redwood popup book that let the action flow seamlessly. It was every move he made, every gesture, the way he carried himself and interacted with others in the cast. This Falstaff was mean and endlessly grumpy. He abused his sidekicks, manhandled women, schemed and bragged shamelessly. And yet, he won the audience over on the sheer power of personality and, this is important, with how he used music to further the character and infuse the story with poignancy and humanity. The comedy flowed from that portrayal like a well-tapped spring.

Terfel’s Falstaff could thunder sonorously in berating his two henchmen in the Act I Honor Monologue, using the prone form of Pistola to punctuate the body parts that honor cannot heal. But he can also bring it down to a hushed pianissimo to deliver the charming Act II arietta, “Quand’ero un paggio” almost as a wistful aside, making us believe he was once a slender page in some distant past before uncounted casks of sherry passed his lips. He can sound positively salacious with an otherwise innocent-sounding phrase as he tries to seduce the fair Alice.

All the while he never missed a pitch or a rhythmic beat. His musical choices were frequently surprising. Just one example: in the great scene that opens Act III, after being unceremoniously dumped into the River Thames when his assignation with Alice goes awry, he sat shivering under a blanket. Most Falstaff’s sing the line, “Taverniere, un bicchier’ di vin caldo” (“…a glass of hot wine”) as straightforward recitative, full voice. Terfel leaned toward the distant publican, placed his hands together in prayer, and sang the line pianissimo. The pitiful desperation with which he pleaded for the warm wine put us firmly on his side.

And if that didn’t do it, the rest of the monologue would have. Each phrase emerged with its own colors, both dramatically and musically, each tying inevitably to the next, building to a towering climax as the wine took its effect and the whole orchestra trilled along with him.

Credit Luisotti for leading a vital musical performance that responded with hair-trigger speed to every element in a score that still astonishes musicians  with its freshness and depth a century-and-a-quarter after it was written.

Mezzo soprano Arwady, the Quickly, wielded the only voice with the power and range to match up with Terfel. Her low notes rocked the rafters, even in a scene where she did a spot-on impression of Falstaff that sounded eerily like him at the bottom of his range. She moved her squat body around the stage with ease, too, and anchored the women’s ensembles firmly.

Despite her slim appearance and winsome bosom, soprano Ainhoa Arteta as Alice, the object of Falstaff’s ruse to seduce her and rob her household, took a couple of acts to soften the hard edge to her voice. By Act III she was sounding free and easy, however. In such an experienced cast mezzo soprano Renée Rapier, currently an Adler Fellow at SF Opera, held her own as Falstaff’s other target, Meg. Heidi Stober, most recently Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro here, deployed her creamy, high-flying soprano to excellent effect as Nannetta, especially ravishing in her Act III invocation of the fairies.

Francesco DeMuro, a high lyric tenor, was most winning as Fenton in the brief, interrupted duets with Stober, moments seized whenever the two young lovers were alone. His voice has a bright ping, not always the most pleasing sound but he displayed an ease for phrasing that was flattering.

Baritone Fabio Capitanucci, making his San Francisco debut, sang Ford (Alice’s husband) with lyric refinement. Unfortunately his big Act II aria, “È sogno? O realta,” presented him with the thankless task of following Terfel’s house-filling voice. As the henchmen, woolly-sounding bass Andrea Silvestrelli created a charming lummox at Pistola and fared better than tenor Greg Fedderly, who sang well but never got much into the character of Bardolfo. With a spraddle-legged walk, tenor Joel Sorensen was the only member of the cast in danger of overdoing things, but he sounded appropriately whiny and drew laughs for some witty physical shtick.

Director Olivier Tambosi, whose previous work here included a superb Makropulos Case in 2010, got the comic timing right and developed character with telling gestures when the singers interacted one-on-one. But for some reason he held back in Act III, when the townsfolk torment Falstaff to get back at him. They hardly touched Terfel, which made his yelps of pain strangely disconnected.

On the other hand, the staging of the final fugue brilliantly moved each singer into the front line as he or she entered musically. When the ending reached a frightening climax everyone sank to the floor in fear, except for Falstaff. Despite his age and many travails, he’s the only one who can stand up to adversity.

Finally, as everyone else leaves the stage, Fenton and Nannetta sneak in one last embrace and kiss. Falstaff—who like Mozart’s Don Giovanni never succeeds at his sexual escapades on stage—can only smile ruefully, as touched as we are by the contrast with his own state of affairs.

Harvey Steiman