Seattle Opera’s 2009/2010 season began with the spectacle of Wagner’s Ring and will end with the uncertainty of a new opera – Daron Hagen’s Amelia – the first commission for the company in decades. In between, a series of three Verdi operas have provided reliable entertainment and an overview of Verdi’s output. The Verdi festival comes to an end this month with a production of Verdi’s last opera – Falstaff.
Verdi’s comedy is funnier than Wagner’s lone attempt, but is no Mozart or Rossini. Nevertheless, its virtues as an opera are more significant than whether it leaves the audience guffawing in the aisles. Falstaff depends more on the strength of the entire ensemble than individual singers, an aspect that minimized individual weaknesses in last Sunday’s second cast debut. Whereas early Verdi can sound episodic and overdone, Falstaff is neither. Verdi gives a flowing narrative that balances ensemble work – duets, quartets, choruses – with individual solos.
For many, Falstaff is the apex of Verdi’s career; a perfect opera; and a perfect comic opera at that. The story is simple enough. Sir John Falstaff, an aging, portly, and uncouth knight is out to seduce two women. Eduardo Chama gave a sturdy performance of Falstaff, coupled with excellent comedic timing. Meg (Sasha Cooke) and Alice Ford (Sally Wolf) are the objects of the old knight’s pursuit. Both sang warmly with a bit of mischief in their voice.
The problems for Falstaff begin as soon as he dispatches a page to deliver his love notes. Alice and Meg, amused by the old knight’s presumption, set out to foil Falstaff’s courting and embarrass him in the process. They are helped by of Dame Quickley, sung by Stephanie Blythe. Seattle audiences will remember Blythe’s towering performances in last summer’s Ring. As Quickley, she restrained her voice to make room for Cooke and Wolf, but never at the expense of nimbleness. If you only know Blythe from her work in the Ring, her portrayal of Quickley will be a pleasant surprise. Bagoj Nacoski and Anya Matanovic made impressive Seattle Opera debuts as Fenton and Nanneta.
In the pit, Riccardo Frizza’s orchestra charged through the score with oomph that was always exciting even if the band occasionally overwhelmed the singers on stage. A slightly tamer orchestra would have helped the balances. Frizza is a rising star on the podium and in the pit. Next season he guest conducts the Seattle Symphony and is undoubtedly – along with every other guest conductor – being looked as a possible replacement for Gerard Schwarz.
Falstaff’s visuals were remarkable for their simplicity and effectiveness. Sets, designed by Donald Eastman, amounted to not much more than raised scaffolding which wrapped around the back of the stage. Tables, wardrobes, and of course, a giant laundry basket were brought in as needed. Interestingly, the pre-opera activities of the singers were turned into a show themselves. Without a curtain blocking our view, we could watch as singers put on fat suits, tied themselves into dresses, and goofed around before the lights went down and the action began. Seeing everything come together before hand, seemed curious at first. By the end, Peter Kazaras’ sly direction added up to a smartly rendered punch line.
Whatever you might think of Verdi and Falstaff, this production and Seattle Opera’s choice of singers, make a strong case for the opera as one of Verdi’s best. Whether it’s Verdi’s music, Seattle’s over all lineup of singers, or the bare pre-show, there are plenty of reasons to check out one of the remaining performances. www.seattleopera.org