02 Dec 2013

Fat Knight in Los Angeles

In its ongoing celebration of Verdi’s centennial year, the Los Angeles Opera offered a new production of Falstaff, the composer’s last and most brilliant opera — brilliant in every scintillating, sparkling sense of the word.

Verdi, who composed more than twenty operatic tragedies and was a life long student of Shakespeare’s plays (witness his powerful Macbeth and heart wrenching Otello) had previously written only one comedy, Il Giorno di Regno (King for a Day). He wrote it when he was 27, at the very outset of his career, but sadly, immediately after the death of his young wife and infant children, and the work failed. Fifty years passed before he undertook this second comedy. He was 80 when Falstaff opened on February 9th 1893 at La Scala in Milan.

Shakespeare’s fictional Sir John Falstaff, a man bloated in body and spirit, and now immortal, is one of literature’s most renowned comic inventions. He appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays — first, in the histories; Henry IV, part 1 and Henry IV part 2, and later, in the comic Merry Wives of Windsor, which is devoted to his exploits alone. In the Henry plays Falstaff is deceitful, funny, and very smart. As the central character of The Merry Wives of Windsor, he is deceitful, absurd, and the butt of ridicule. The eminent 18th century scholar, Samuel Johnson found “nothing in [Falstaff] that can be esteemed.”. The eminent modern scholar Harold Bloom, considers the early Falstaff one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters.

FLS5040.gifLeft to right: Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, Erica Brookhyser as Meg Page; Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta; Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford.

Composers Antonio Salieri, Michael Balfe and Otto Nicolai, based operatic works on the comically absurd Falstaff of the Merry Wives . British composers, Sir Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and Vaughan Williams emphasized the historical British past in their telling of the fat knight’s adventures. Williams’ score contains British folks songs including “Greensleeves.” Verdi and Boito created a perfectly blended masterpiece — a comic opera set in oak timbered England, that sounds and plays like a manic French farce.

The story: Falstaff sets out to woo two wealthy women — his motives are simple: lust and financial gain. Sad for him, it turns out the women know each other and set out to trick him. They set a trap and succeed in making a fool of him. In fact, they succeed more than once — which should tell you something about Falstaff’s personality. However, there is a happy ending, and the would-be seducer is invited to a feast with the women and their families, including the husband he intended to cuckold.

Falstaff requires an extraordinary cast. Verdi had written a new and different kind of opera, an opera whose music is a perpetual motion of merry deceits. In planning its premiere he turned down singers, even renowned singers, “who express feeling and action by falling asleep on the notes.” This new opera had to be performed by artists who "articulate" and “sing with brio.”

Los Angeles Opera gets high marks for presenting an excellent cast. Baritone Roberto Frontali, properly plumped up as Falstaff, sang with attention to the lyric, as well as humorous aspects of the Falstaff’s music, and with clear articulation. Baritone Marco Caria, who was debuting with the company as the Ford, delivered a passionate rendition of the humorous monologue on women. Robert Brubaker was properly humorous in the thankless tenor role of Dr Caius. Argentine tenor, Juan Francisco Gatell, was a handsome, lithe, but light voiced Fenton in his company debut. Bardolph (Rodell Rosel) and Pistol (Valentin Anikin) were amusingly deceitful rogues.

FLS5059.gifLeft to right: Juan Francisco Gatell as Fenton, Rodell Rosel as Bardolph, Marco Caria as Ford, Valentin Anikin as Pistol and Robert Brubaker as Dr. Caius

Soprano Carmen Giannattasio and mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser, as Alice and Meg respectively, were charming schemers. Ekaterina Sadovnikova, a pert soprano, made the snatches of Nannetta’s love music, and her “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” gleam. Ronnita Nicole Miller was properly conspiratorial and panderous as Mistress Quickly. However her mezzo soprano voice lacked the darkness “to function” as Verdi intended, “as the double bass in the women’s quartets”. And speaking of quartets, the extremely difficult ensemble pieces in this opera — the male and female octet and the last glorious fugue, incorporating the entire cast and chorus, were sharp, crisp and joyous.

For this production the opera company engaged British director, Lee Blakely and designer, Adrian Linford. Before the performance began and as scene changes were required, a drop down curtain containing various Shakespearean excerpts referring to Falstaff were a thoughtful touch, which added a sense depth, and I think helped keep audience anchored to the background of the tale. The settings were traditionally, but skimpily, Elizabethan. I found the trap door entrance and exit in the floor of Falstaff’s first act quarters, perhaps to offer the gratuitous information that the impoverished rogue was living an attic, unnecessary and distracting. Clearly, Falstaff couldn’t get through that door. Unfortunately the setting and direction of the last act, the dramatic and musical climax of the opera did not match the magic of its music. The music and libretto call for a sort of midsummer night’s fairy land setting. Shakespeare’s text calls on “fairies”and “elves” to pinch, tease and shake the villainous Falstaff. The words are even more amusing in Boito’s Italian, “pizzica, pizzica, stuzzica, spizzica, spizzica.” Unfortunately, the stage was shallow and essentially bare except for the required oak tree. Falstaff ’s punishment, set front and center on the foreshortened stage with the chorus lined up behind him, and with only a few “un-elfish” and “un-fairy” like creatures “attacking” him, was heavy handed and unconvincing.

Ah, but under James Conlon’s baton, the conducting of the act, in fact, of the entire opera was all “pizzica, stuzzica,” touch and go, light, airy, bouncy and merry as it should be.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Dr. Caius: Robert Brubaker; Sir John Falstaff: Roberto Frontali; Bardolph: Rodell Rosel; Pistol: Valentin Anikin; Meg Page: Erica Brookhyser; Alice Ford: Carmen Giannattasio; Mistressuickly: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Nannetta: Ekaterina Sadovnikova; Fenton: Juan Francisco Gatell; Ford: Marco Caria. Conductor: James Conlon. Director: Lee Blakeley. Scenic and Costume Designer: Adrian Linford. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Chorus Master: Grant Gershon.