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Andrew Shore in the title role of Falstaff, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
03 Feb 2008

Verdi's Falstaff at Chicago

There is nothing redeeming about Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most lively comic characters and the subject of Verdi’s final opera, and yet, inexplicably, we love him.

Giuseppi Verdi: Falstaff
Civic Opera House, January 28, 2008

Above: Andrew Shore in the title role of Falstaff, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2007-08 season. All photos by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

 

A bloated, insult-wielding drunkard who finds himself suddenly broke, he seeks to free himself from debt by wooing two wealthy women—both with the exact same love letter. When Alice Ford and Meg Page, the ladies in question, discover that they are being played for fools, they band together with the help of their friend Mistress Quickly and plan to dupe Falstaff. The musical result is one of the rare occasions when comic opera is actually funny. Played, as such evenings often are, to the blind in the 10th balcony, the laughs at Lyric are more often than not collective good-natured chuckles than guffaws of genuine surprise. Still, on opening night, the audience clearly enjoyed the opera’s style of comedy, investing in the show and audibly rooting for its favorite characters. This notion is further reinforced by Frank Phillipp Schlössmann’s Globe Theatre-inspired sets, which immediately transplant the audience into a world where a broader method of presentation is the norm. Costumes were traditional, but the bold colors contrasted beautifully with the amber-toned sets.

An audience can expect a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre—even if there are slight problems with the production—with a Falstaff from a top-notch company like Lyric Opera of Chicago. Picky imperfections in performance pale in the shadow of the brilliance of the work itself, obviously a labor of the composer’s love.

Like any comedy, a Falstaff is only as strong as its sense of ensemble, and, in something of a coup, by utilizing the brightly burning talents of current members of the Ryan Opera Center and supplementing them with the Center’s alumni, the administration has gathered a group of artists used to working with each other and who, out-singing most of the imported stars of the evening, present a tidy troupe. Even though director Olivier Tambosi fails to tighten the comic timing to sharp punctuality, the general mirth on stage more than carries the evening’s entertainment. Once again stepping forward with her booming voice, Meredith Arwady sparkles as Mistress Quickly, and her “Riverenza” scene inspired most of the genuine laughs of the evening. Elizabeth DeShong’s Meg Page is sprightly and attractive of voice. Of the current Ryan Opera Center’s roster, the most notable singer in this opera is Bryan Griffin, whose turn as Fenton is marked by a lyric tenor voice of both sweetness and strength, and Ryan Center alum Stacey Tappan’s crystalline Nannetta soars opposite Mr. Griffin. David Cangelosi, whose character tenor roles are well known at Lyric for their physicality, seems positively subdued next to the boisterous commedia dell’ arte characterization of fellow alumnus Rodell Rosel’s Bardolfo.

Falstaff_Chicago2.pngAlice Ford (Veronica Villarroel, third l.) describes her plan to feign interest in Falstaff's wooing as Meg Page (far l.), Nanetta (second l.), and Mistress Quickly (far r.) listen with delight in Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 production of Falstaff.

Though not advertised as Megastars, one would expect the leads of this production to outshine the ensemble easily, but such was not the case. As Alice, Veronica Villaroel is not the plastic prima donna spinning measure after measure of line while ignoring the baser nature of the material; the Chilean soprano found some joy in even the subtler moments of the comedy. Neither is Villaroel the soprano with very little in the way of voice, but with star power to burn. (In fact, she sang Alice with no apparent strain.) Villaroel lands this role instead somewhere in the unfortunate pleasant-enough middle ground and manages neither to offend nor excite. Similarly, Andrew Shore in the title role perhaps does not have the wherewithal to color more lyrical moments with the vocal subtlety he intends; however, he does make a convincing Falstaff, barking and seducing at regular intervals. The audience may forgive the slow moving actor because of the additional costuming required to render him obese, but his physical comedy fell short of the standard set by other members of the cast. Boaz Daniel, on the other hand, as Signore Ford, turns in a thoroughly engaging vocal performance, his robust and appealing baritone easily launching itself expressively over the orchestra for his aria “È sogno? O realtà…”

Andrew Davis, conducting what the official press release calls his ‘’favorite Verdi opera”, keeps the evening well paced in this reviewer’s opinion. His tempi, though, may have been a little slow for those on stage; the singers consistently tried to rush the Act One finale. Granted: the Act One finale is incredibly difficult to keep together, and the cast does a noble job of trying, perhaps, though, it could stand to watch the bouncing head of hair up front a little more. Still, the opera itself is sung very well across the board, the stagecraft solid, and the evening spent in the Civic Opera House absorbing Verdi’s last masterpiece is well spent.

Gregory Peebles © 2008

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