Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff [Photo by Cory Weaver]
09 Oct 2013

Falstaff in San Francisco

A rambunctious ensemble on the stage and in the pit. A star conductor. Falstaff showed its stuff as one of the repertory’s greatest masterpieces.

Falstaff at San Francisco Opera

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Bryn Terfel as Falstaff

Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

 

It is an astonishing score embodying a libretto of unequaled brilliance. It proves Verdi the veritable progeny of Rossini, able to infuse comedy with an explosive energy that holds you at the moment you would burst were you not held safe by great art.

Falstaff is the ultimate ensemble piece bringing together ten voices of nearly equal dramatic force, interweaving them so tightly that only brief if very intense instances of lyric expansion linger. Though there are two much larger moments which well endure — Ford at the end of the second act explodes in an extended fit of rabid jealousy of his wife Alice (and its flip side, his obsessive fear of cuckoldry), and Fenton in the moonlight of the final scene cannot contain his raptures of love for Ford’s daughter Nanetta whom he is obsessively courting.

At the center of Falstaff is the gigantic elaboration on the follies of love, and those are the appetites of Sir John Falstaff. His appetite for roasted chickens and stewed rabbits and casks of wine have promoted the impressive girth that simply defines the magnitude of his appetite for women. Nor is he particularly selective about which woman as it turns out.

The action moves so fast that the opera seemed to stage itself. This was the triumph of this San Francisco Opera production, the myriad of dramatic complexities were tightly contained mostly within the hole left when Falstaff erupted through the floor of the abstracted Elizabethan theater that sat on the War Memorial stage. After all, this Verdi Falstaff is an interloper into the Shakespearian histories (four plays) of Sir John’s adventures.

Falstaff3_SF_OT.pngFrancesco Demuro as Fenton, Andrea Silvestrelli as Pistola, Fabio Capitanucci as Ford, Joel Sorensen as Dr. Caiua, Greg Fedderly as Bardolfo

Austrian stage director Olivier Tambosi was joined by two associate directors, Jose Maria Condemi and Stephanie Smith to make the action move in precise concert with Verdi’s score where no action can be imagined that does not already have musical definition. Certainly this was a daunting task. And there are the constraints of conforming to the needs of the maestro who likes the action downstage center where the singers are under his direct control, not to mention the big (seven to ten voices) ensembles of daunting complexity where the singers need to find their way into a line across the front of the stage in order to musically survive.

The complex set, a fifteen year old production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, staged then (and now) by Tambosi was designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, which team is known to San Francisco Opera audiences for its 2010 Makropulis Case. The set offers many hidden openings in its massive wooden walls, Fenton could appear here and there like an annoying housefly. When it became Ford’s house his henchmen could ransack its upper hallways, and finally its back walls disappeared completely to reveal Windsor Forest.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti mercilessly taunted Falstaff with choruses of horns, and mercilessly rubbed in the double entendre in by placing the Herne’s Oak horn call from a box in the opera house (blown by the orchestra’s costumed principal horn). The already high-voltage of the octogenarian composer’s score was poised on the edge of explosion, holding us enraptured by the solo winds making fun of everyone on stage, the piccolo hinting at the pain. This was Luisotti at his absolute finest, making this remarkable score conjure up the genius of Shakespeare himself to join in Verdi’s roast of his delusional knight.

It was an impeccable cast. Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff anchored these dramas of the wily women of Windsor making fun of lovesick men. The Tambosi/Terfel Falstaff is not a lovable version of the man, it is a more blatant, uncomfortable take on the mythical knight than a sympathetic portrayal. Terfel has now had decades of experience with the role and has surely mastered all its possible moves. At 48 years of age he has no lack of power, stamina or subtlety to create the crimson colored monster of this production.

Falstaff2_SF_OT.pngHeidi Stober as Nanetta, Ainhoa Areta as Alice Ford, Renée Rapier as Meg Page, Meredith Arwady as Dame Quickly

If Terfel’s performance towered about all the rest it was to validate his character as the name of the opera. The balance of the cast worked very much as an ensemble and did not burden us with stars attempting to fit into a complex dramatic mechanism. Italian baritone Fabio Capitanucci made Ford vulnerable, sly and twisted, his instinctual Italianate fear of the horns palpable. Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as Fenton delivered a stunning “Dal labbro il canto estasïato vola,” reveling in the rolled “r”’s of his native language.

Spanish soprano Ainhoa Areta brought charm and plenty of voice to Alice Ford, finding the fun of the character rather than the authority. American coloratura soprano Heidi Stober was a fine looking Nanetta, beautifully paired to her Fenton though she did not have the innocence of voice to create the magic of Windsor Forest (she sings the more complex Mozart and bel canto heroines). Adler Fellow mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier held her own as Meg Page.

If Bryn Terfel met his match anywhere in this cast it was American contralto Meredith Arwady whose force of personality, force of voice, inherent sense of comedy attained veritable Falstaffian proportions. Of near Falstaffian proportions as well were the Dr. Caius of Joel Sorensen, the Bardolfo of Greg Fedderly and the Pistola of Andrea Silvestrelli, more believable Shakespearian rogues could not possibly be found anywhere nor could more accomplished character artists.

Michael Milenski


Cast and Production Information:

Falstaff: Bryn Terfel; Alice Ford: Ainhoa Areta; 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. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Olivier Tambosi; Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Lighting Designer: Christine Binder. War Memorial Opera House, October 8, 2013.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):