Los Angeles Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’

Roberto Frontali as Falstaff. Photo by Robert Millard.

Roberto Frontali as Falstaff. Photo by Robert Millard.

Review by David Gregson, Monday, November 11

In a long lifetime of opera going, I have never seen a truly bad performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, the composer’s brilliant final opera and one of his very finest works. One would think that such a dazzling and complicated creation with its intricate ensembles and quicksilver pace would trip everybody up every time, but no — the piece always brings out the best in the conductors, orchestras and singers who have accepted the challenge. It’s no surprise, therefore, to discover that Los Angeles Opera’s current production does not disappoint even if it does not scale the ultimate heights.

Often called a “conductor’s opera” (and Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan and Arturo Toscanini certainly thought it was), this production benefits from the considerable talents of James Conlon, the LAO’s music director; and it also boasts a first-rate Italian Verdi baritone, Roberto Frontali, in the title role. The other singers are much less well known, especially to local audiences — but because Falstaff is largely an ensemble opera, relying more on collaborative contributions than individual star turns, this is not a problem. The larger parts, that is to say those characters with actual arias in an opera which is so often supposed to be without any, are strongly cast, particularly with Italian baritone Marco Caria as Ford (who has a classically furious jealous outburst in which Verdi seems to be parodying scenes from his most tragic operas); and with Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta, who, as the Queen of the Faeries in the last act, sings one of the most etherial arias Verdi ever penned.

Really great performances of Falstaff are never forgotten. My first was with the San Francisco Opera in 1962 in Los Angeles; my second was in San Diego in 1963, also with the visiting San Francisco company. My third was at the War Memorial in San Francisco itself. All three of these performances starred the to-me incomparable Sir Geraint Evans. He brought such an amazing exuberance to the part and he was so very full of life, and he so clearly savored every word of Boito’s Shakespeare-based text and he so deeply relished every note of Verdi’s music, that for me he remains the gold standard. A wonderful old audio-only recording conducted by Sir Georg Solti preserves his vocal performance. It’s a shame there is no video document.

We are fortunate, also, to have another great performance, this one on discs and video: the 1982 Los Angeles Philharmonic production that starred Renato Bruson and featured now legendary Carlo Maria Giulini as conductor. The disc is for sale online and the whole opera as restaged at London’s Covent Garden is viewable on You Tube. This is well worth seeing and important to talk about here because — well, this production of this opera helped spawn the Los Angeles Opera that we enjoy today, certainly one of our most precious performing arts resources.

Though ‘comparisons are odorous’ as Shakespeare’s Dogberry malapropriately observes, I found Frontali’s Falstaff less nuanced and detailed, more severe and less buoyant than Evans’s interpretation of the part, although Frontali and the rest of the cast did not enjoy the strongest stage direction imaginable. Bits of it were unnecessarily crude (Sir John’s thrusting codpiece, for example), and often there was no appropriate visual component for the actions supplied musically by Verdi. If you are hearing jingling purses, it seems to me you should see them also. If, as in Act One, Scene One, Falstaff chases Bardolph and Pistol off stage with a broom, the prop department should be told to provide a damn broom. Instead we see the fat man running to and fro in a way that wouldn’t scare anyone.  If Sir John and Mr. Ford are disputing the question of who should go though a door first, we ought to have a door — not a vast empty space. But Lee Blakeley, like too many other stage directors today, doesn’t seem to have read the libretto or have listened to the music. Yes — I am making a nasty crack, because I am certain Blakeley thinks he knows what he’s doing and is quite happy with it.

Left to right: Juan Francisco Gatell (Fenton), Rodell Rosel (Bardolph), Marco Caria (Ford), Valentin Anikin (Pistol), Robert Brubaker (Dr. Caius). Photo: Robert Millard Los Angeles Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’

Left to right: Juan Francisco Gatell (Fenton), Rodell Rosel (Bardolph), Marco Caria (Ford), Valentin Anikin (Pistol), Robert Brubaker (Dr. Caius). Photo: Robert Millard
Los Angeles Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’

Although the LAO has made several forays into the world of Regietheater, most notably with the financially disastrous Achim Freyer staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, this Falstaff is properly Tudor/Elizabethan in its sets and costuming. I am sure many people were delighted with it, but I found it prosaic and predictable. Two Tudor wooden-beamed towers flank the proscenium, and the recurring locations — the Garter Inn and Ford’s house — are neatly indicated. A giant sketch of the Windsor environs invites our contemplation. The final “Hearne’s Oak” scene in Winsdor Park comes the closest to abstraction in that the huge oak is a dark, dead, gnarly presence dominating the left side of the stage picture. Elsewhere projections on a transitional drop give us quotations from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the works that Arrigo Boito distilled into his ingenious libretto. The first projection of the evening, however, must be confusing to those unfamiliar with the plays. It is the infamous and heartbreaking “I know thee not, old man” speech in which the newly crowned Prince Hal rejects and banishes his former companion. Certainly something for us Shakespeare lovers to mull over. No Prince Hal appears in the opera. The Falstaff we see is the banished Sir John.

The merry wives are a great group. They have to be funny by themselves and in their ensembles. At one point early on, Verdi plays the men and women off against one another in clashing musical meters. Soprano Carmen Giannattasio (Alice) and mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser (Meg) are delightful in their comical endurance and manipulation of Sir John’s unwanted amorous advances; and the low comedy of the Fat Knight’s absurd companions is appropriately ludicrous in the hands of Joel Sorenson as Dr. Caius (for Saturday night’s performance only), and Rodell Rosel as Bardolph and Valentin Anikin as Pistol. I felt Nannetta’s boyfriend Fenton, Juan Francisco Gatell, sounded a little nasal and his voice betrayed a wide vibrato. The always welcome mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller makes a priceless Mistress Quickly (what a voice!), but I feel she may have underplayed the role just a bit on opening night. I can recall several mezzos who have gotten huge laughs with every utterance of “Reverenza” and its echoes. The mock humility of this recurring bit is delicious. In any event, someone should stage a whole opera that revolves about this superb singer.

I was going to conclude with some remarks about Verdi’s brilliant fugue that ends this opera, “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” but that inspired finale sets off so many memories and associations in my mind, I am afraid I’d have to devote an entire essay to the subject.

Left to right: Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, Erica Brookhyser as Meg Page; Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta; Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford. Photo: Robert Millard

Left to right: Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, Erica Brookhyser as Meg Page; Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta; Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford. Photo: Robert Millard

CAST

Sir John Falstaff:  Roberto Frontali
Alice Ford:  Carmen Giannattasio
Ford:  Marco Caria*
Fenton:  Juan Francisco Gatell*
Nannetta:  Ekaterina Sadovnikova*
Meg Page:  Erica Brookhyser++
Mistress Quickly:  Ronnita Nicole Miller++
Dr. Caius:  (Nov. 9) Joel Sorensen
Dr. Caius:  Robert Brubaker
Bardolph:  Rodell Rosel
Pistol: Valentin Anikin+

CREATIVE TEAM
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Lee Blakeley*
Scenery and Costume Designer: Adrian Linford*
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Choreographer: Nicola Bowie
* LA Opera debut artist
+ Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program member
++ Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program alumnus

Wednesday,  November 13, 2013 07:30 PM
Saturday,  November 16, 2013 07:30 PM
Thursday,  November 21, 2013 07:30 PM
Sunday,  November 24, 2013 02:00 PM
Sunday,  December 01, 2013 02:00 PM

Los Angeles Opera website

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