United States Verdi, Falstaff: Opera Saratoga Orchestra and Chorus / Craig Kier (conductor), Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, NY, 15.7.2017. (RP)
Alice Ford – Caroline Worra
Nannetta – Emily Tweedy
Mistress Quickly – Lindsay Ammann
Meg Page – Vera Savage
Sir John Falstaff – Craig Colclough
Ford – Michael Chioldi
Fenton – Dominick Corbacio
Dr. Caius – Max Jacob Zander
Bardolfo – Michael Anderson
Pistola – Jorgeandrés Carriage
Director – Chuck Hudson
Scenic Designer – Martin T. Lopez
Costume Designer – CeCe Sickler
Lighting Designer – Brandon Stirling Baker
Composer-librettist Arrigo Boito tempted Verdi out of retirement by dangling before him the prospect of ending his career ‘with a mighty burst of laughter’. With Falstaff Verdi proved that he could make an audience laugh as well as cry, and that his imagination and innovative impulses had not diminished with age. Opera Saratoga’s Falstaff took Boito’s words to heart and mined the comic elements in the tale of Shakespeare’s vain and self-deluded knight, eliciting roars of laughter from the audience. It was not all belly laughs however: the outstanding performances of Craig Colclough as Sir John Falstaff and Michael Chioldi as Ford lifted this Falstaff from the entertaining to the extraordinary.
Colclough was padded to create a man of enormous but plausible girth who was extraordinarily proud of his massive belly. There was always a twinkle in his eye as he proudly stroked and displayed it to the world; his paunch was his calling card. This Falstaff was a dandy, sporting with equal aplomb his garish finery as he sets off to woe Alice Ford; a drenched pink union suit after he was unceremoniously dumped into the drink; or enormous stag horns when disguised as Herne the Hunter in the dark of Great Windsor Park.
It was Colclough’s voice, however, and his subtle characterization of the knight that were so remarkable. Falstaff’s full humanity was on display as he mused over his ignominious fate for those fleeting moments in Act III where he actually doubts himself. A fat man in his underwear may be funny, but Colclough turned him into a philosopher.
Michael Chioldi’s performance of Ford’s Act II aria, ‘È sogno o realtà?’, was stunning, the high point of the opera. His Ford had bottled up his rage to the breaking point, incensed at the thought of being cuckolded by this buffoon. It was a controlled explosion, however; he, like Colclough, had mastered the tricky acoustics of the intimate Spa Little Theater. Initial impressions, albeit in a small house, indicated that Chioldi is a dramatic baritone of the first order.
The two men tipped the balance in this Falstaff. Generally it is a battle of wits between the knight and the three ladies, but here the focus was on the duel of honor between the two equally equipped male combatants. Not that the ladies were without wit, charm and vocal allure. Caroline Worra, an ebullient Alice Ford with a voice as bright as her beaming smile, deftly orchestrated the comeuppance of Falstaff and her husband. Lindsay Ammann has an especially dark and lustrous voice, and captured the wit and wiliness of Mistress Quickly. In a high-octane cast, Vera Savage’s Meg Page was understated, to the extent that she almost got lost in the shuffle.
As the young lovers, Emily Tweedy as Nannetta and Dominick Corbacio as Fenton were inevitably to be found kissing when not singing. Corbacio’s tenor has a bronze hue to it, which nicely complemented the sparkle in Tweedy’s lyric soprano. Max Jacob Zander’s Dr. Caius and Jorgeandrés Carmago’s Pistola did not generate as many laughs as did the antics of Michael Anderson’s Bardolfo, but a comedy needs a straight man or two. All three were fine singers.
Craig Kier led a brisk account of the score that bubbled with energy. He and the orchestra were behind the set, so he could do little to correct the balance problems that cropped up intermittently. Pitch problems plagued the strings. In a staging as traditional and straightforward as this one, it is a mystery why director Chuck Hudson destroyed the magic with extras and choristers in street clothes, who appeared reluctant to even be on stage. There are many solutions to the limitations that Hudson faced — space and resources being at the top of the list — but he just punted.