United States Verdi, Falstaff: LA Opera, James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 9.11.13-1.12.13 (JRo)
The king of bellies landed his large bottom on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last night and the evening was a triumphant blend of hilarity, pathos, and ravishing music. In this ensemble of marvelous singers, Maestro Conlon has a cast who not only do credit to Verdi’s incandescent score but also match the glorious sound that Conlon drew from the LA Opera orchestra.
Falstaff is without doubt one of the gems of Italian opera. Though a casual listener might think it lacks the show stopping arias of Verdi’s earlier masterpieces, the truth is that the tunes are sprinkled like dustings of sugar throughout the three acts, and one can barely keep pace with the melodic abundance of his score. No mere musical accompaniment to the singers, the orchestra, under Conlon’s inspired direction, lays claim as a character in its own right. The musicians become Verdi’s eighty-year-old voice commenting, cajoling, and embracing life in all its contradictions.
Whether singing of his belly as his kingdom (which must be enlarged) or the physical charms of his slim youth, Robert Frontali as Falstaff had the voice and stage presence to bring the character to bursting life. His supple baritone was as expressive as it was potent. He had the knack for confiding in the audience, drawing us in like co-conspirators who wished for his schemes to succeed, just as a parent wishes for the success of its offspring. His partners in crime, Bardolf (Rodell Rosel) and Pistol (Valentine Anikin), added their brand of delicious squalor to the first act.
The warm toned sets by Adrian Linford contributed to the action. From beginning to end their simplicity, with a suggestion of Elizabethan architecture, allowed the narrative to unfold without interference, enhancing the humor with its windows and balconies and resembling a storybook world that delighted at every turn. In fact, a screen resembling a giant sheet of aged parchment descended at the beginning of each scene onto which a Shakespearean quote from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” or “Henry IV” was projected, adding to the storybook effect and referencing the literary material from which the opera sprang.
As the merry wives, Carmen Giannattasio (Alice Ford), Erica Brookhyser (Meg Page), Ronnita Nicole Miller (Mistress Quickly), and Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Nannetta) proved an impressive and adorable quartet. In the allegro vivace of Act One, Part Two when the male and female ensembles scheme in their separate groups, we are in Rossini territory, but this is Rossini on steroids at the close of the nineteenth century when music is traveling towards a modernist vocabulary with Verdi pointing the direction.
The Italian soprano, Giannattasio, had a lovely clarity to her voice that in turn thrilled, seduced, and charmed. With the air of a wise matron coupled with the insouciance of a woman secure in her attractiveness, she proved to be an ideal Alice.
Ronnita Miller as Mistress Quickly, the neighbor of Meg and Alice, and go-between to Alice and Falstaff, once again proved herself to be a formidable and versatile talent. Able to deliver her obsequious “Reverenza” of Act Two with sly but subtle phrasing, to confront Falstaff with the necessary gravitas and yet infuse the meeting with irony and a knowing wink was immensely satisfying. At home in both the upper and lower registers, one feels she is able to endlessly surprise yet remain secure with both vocal and acting demands. One of the most humorous moments in the staging, thanks to director Lee Blakely, is Falstaff’s “tip” bestowed on Quickly. After she sets up the rendezvous of Falstaff and Alice, the knight, rather than tossing the mistress a coin, as in most productions, hands her a half eaten chicken leg. What happens next is comic perfection.
With the departure of Mistress Quickly in Act Two, next up is Alice’s husband, Ford, (Marco Caris) intent on tricking and humiliating Falstaff. One character played off the other with delightful results. Ford plied Falstaff with gold, wine, and flattery; and there was much humor inherent in the handsome Caris begging Falstaff to intercede for him in seducing Alice. Caris presented a colored baritone with all the ardor of a romantic tenor. When he raged against Alice whom he now believes is cheating on him, the orchestra raged along with him and together they created high drama and raucous comedy all at once. With Falstaff off stage dressing for his seduction of Alice, Ford’s aria took on shades of Otello, the music first exploding then suddenly shifting gears with the score shimmering at Falstaff’s silken and bejeweled entrance.
The antics of Act Two in Alice’s home with characters hiding in corners, dirty laundry flying in the air, and men piling in the room to rout out Falstaff had the inspired zaniness of a Marx Brothers movie or an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Giannattasio, with her effortless soprano, sets the scene for the trick played on Falstaff.
However, it is the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, who in this scene ground the opera. The singers Sadovnikova and Juan Francisco Gatell formed the perfect partnership to bring home the poignancy of true love. With her nuanced soprano and golden curls, Sadovnikova was the embodiment of Nannetta. Gatell’s lustrous tenor had enough yearning and enthusiasm in every note to convey his overflowing love for her. From first act to last they remind us of why we love, marry, and procreate. Their honest desires are what we aspire to in youth and long for in old age. Fenton’s refrain: “Bocca baciata non perde ventura,” (Lips that are kissed never lose their charm) and Alice’s answer, “Anzi rinnova come fa la luna,” (Instead, they renew it like the moon) never leave our consciousness, weaving a spell of magic throughout.
In the final act, after Falstaff has been dumped in the river in a laundry basket, he climbed from the orchestra pit onto the stage, collapsing on his back like a beached whale. What follows is a wonder of orchestral imagination. Frontali reprised his “Va John” from Act One, this time though he’s defeated and broken. Then suddenly the horns announced the entrance of a goblet of wine and in the time it takes for one gulp, the music and Frontali trilled to zestful life.
The opera concludes at midnight in a magical park under a huge oak where a trap has been laid for Falstaff. Lounging on the sturdy oak, Fenton, waiting for Nannetta, sang rapturously of his love. His aria seemed a marked contrast to the lecherous follies of old age, and yet his song emphasized man’s common desire for love no matter what the age. Nannetta and Fenton are Verdi’s children and the children of us all.
Since Falstaff has allowed himself to be tricked again into meeting Alice, he appeared, as requested, dressed as the Black Huntsman sporting a pair of enormous antlers. The rest of the townsfolk are in on the trick and all the players disguise themselves as fairies, witches, and mischievous spirits. Draped in white gauze, Sadovnikova, as Queen of the Fairies, mesmerized the audience with her ethereal soprano. Blooming with beauty, one knew she was entitled to a full life of love with her young suitor rather than the old lecher, Dr. Caius (Joel Sorenson filling in for an indisposed Robert Brubaker) whom her father insists she marry. Though Falstaff is scared out of his wits by a taunting chorus of men and women and justly punished for his scheming by the townsfolk, he remains wholly true to himself and his belly to the bitter end. “Man is born a jester,” Frontali sang triumphantly and we are glad of it to our very core!