Ambitious Falstaff Opens Opera San José Season
09/08/2001 - 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 22, 23, 25, 28, 29 and 30, September, 2001
Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
Scott Bearden/David Cox (Falstaff), Joshua La Force/Bill Welch (Dr. Caius), J. Raymond Meyers/Christopher Fernandez (Bardolfo), Kirk Eichelberger/Paul Linnes (Pistola), Donna Olson/Natalie Wilson (Meg Page), Julie Makerov/Lori Decter Purcell (Alice Ford), Lucy Salome Sträuli/Cindy Sadler (Dame Quickly), Sandra Rubalcava/Aimée Puentes (Nanetta), Jonathan Hodel/Adam Flowers (Fenton), Constantinos Yiannoudes/Joseph Wright (Ford)
David Rohrbaugh/Anthony Quartuccio (Conductor)
Michael McConnell (Stage Director)
Opera San José is still a young company but one that is constantly growing and maturing. One of the measures of a company’s growth and maturity is in the operas that company adds to its repertory. And Opera San José’s addition of Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff, is a significant achievement, even with its flaws.
After making a career of writing tragic operas and capping it with Otello in 1887, Verdi dazzled the operatic world by turning out this remarkable comedy (his only one aside from the early, unsuccessful Un Giorno di Regno). Falstaff demands superb singing actors, absolute musical mastery of the score, a true ensemble cast, a conductor attentive to nuances of rhythm and balance, and a staging that compliments the score’s quicksilver wit and mercurial shifts. A tall challenge for any company and one which Opera San José faces with equal parts youthful exuberance and determination.
Many consider Boito’s libretto to be an improvement over its source, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windor, particularly in the creation of the title character. Many of the world’s great singing actors have tackled the role, finding it a juicy, satisfying challenge. Like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the role of Falstaff has no major arias, but is defined through his interactions with the other characters.
Scott Bearden, a member of Opera San José’s resident company, takes a major step forward with his performance as Sir John Falstaff, capturing much of the character’s wit, individuality and irascibility. On opening night, Bearden sounded strained occasionally in some higher-lying passages but for the most part sang with a robust, rounded tone. More importantly, he managed always to find the right tone for the moment, never making Falstaff into a buffoon, however bloated his ego. Often comical, sometimes self-pitying, but always human, Bearden’s Falstaff was right on target.
Constantinos Yiannoudes’s Ford contrasted neatly with Bearden’s Falstaff. His Ford was comical for being overly serious and unaware of his flaws, unlike the jolly knight. Yiannoudes has plenty of theatrical flair and vocal presence to compete with Bearden and their scene together was one of the highlights of the performance.
The women in the cast were uniformly strong from Lucy Salome Sträuli’s sly, earthy Dame Quickly to Donna Olsen’s playful, lively Meg Page. Sandra Rubalcava was a delight as Nanetta, her silvery voice the essence of youthful love and innocence. As Alice Ford, Julie Makerov provided a confident strength and calm in the midst of the scheming that whirls through Falstaff.
The other men in the cast provided a delightful range of characters. Joshua La Force’s pendantic Dr. Caius was a constant flow of comical rage. J. Raymond Meyers’ Bardolfo and Kirk Eichelberger’s Pistola, Falstaff’s two drunken buddies, both gave their characters individuality with intelligent chosen business and by avoiding generic “drunk” behavior. Jonathan Hodel’s tenor may not have had the ideal lyricism and sweetness for the role of Fenton, but he compensated with convincing impetuous ardor in his quest for Nanetta’s affections and her father’s approval.
However fine the individual performances came of, it is in the ensemble that Falstaff makes its mark and the opening night cast, while occasionally sounding tentative and under-rehearsed in some of the most complicated passages, worked together well for the most part. The nine-voice fugue that ends the opera was delivered with polish, style and flair that showed the company at its best.
As usual, the opera was sung in the original language, Italian. However helpful the supertitles were for this opera, one cannot help but think a high quality English translation might have added to the impact. The cast seemed so good at the textual nuances, with fine comic timing and excellent diction, that the added dimension of verbal communication could only have enhanced the performance.
Conductor David Rorbaugh also deserves credit for the polished musical performance. His conducting sometimes lacked the fluidity and lightness the score calls for and even with a reduced orchestra the sound was often bottom heavy. But he guided his cast around the potential pitfalls and much of the opera moved along with a lively clip without sacrificing clarity or accuracy.
Stage director Michael McConnell exercised equal parts inspiration and good taste to come up with a wonderfully balance production that captured the humanity of the work as well as the humor. Never stooping for a cheap laugh or obvious gesture, McConnell elicited the witty best from his cast. The moment Falstaff offers a tiny stool for the buxom Dame Quickly only to have her sweep grandly into his own sturdy chair was just one of many delightful, fresh moments.
The production design by Julie Engelbrecht was somewhat more problematic. The basic unit set worked well enough for the scenes at the Garter Inn. With its upper platform running across the upstage area from stage left to a short flight of steps to the stage floor on the right, it provided a useful entrance and upper playing area. And for the second scene, the garden of Ford’s house, the rows of wash hung up on either side of the stage worked reasonably well. But when that same wash all showed up for the scene inside Ford’s house, one had to wonder if this wasn’t The Merry Washerwomen of Windsor. The hanging fabrics created more problems than solutions in this scene where rapid entrances and exits are essential. Constricting the space to the middle of an already small stage with the staging demands of the scene stretched the suspension of disbelief beyond limits.
Kevin G. Oakeson’s lighting was equally problematic, with a series of distracting changes that were too extreme and too obvious. The warm coloring for the Garter Inn were richly atmospheric, but the lighting failed to capture the moonlit magic of the final scene, so expertly evoked in Verdi’s score.
On the other hand, Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes and Sara Beukers’ wigs and make up designs were nothing short of superb. From the greasy, unwashed look of Falstaff and his cronies in the first scene, to the fresh-scrubbed modesty of the middle-class Fords and their friends, Poindexter’s costumes aptly captured the range of characters, enhancing the performers and extending their performances.
As Opera San José’s Falstaff continues its run, it will no doubt get even better and the energetic joyous production bodes well for the company’s new season.