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Falstaff à la Fellini

Oper Frankfurt
11/28/2003 -  and 8, 11, 14 December
Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
Stephen Kechulius (Sir John Falstaff), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Ford), Michela Remor (Mrs. Alice Ford), Nidia Palacios (Mrs. Meg Page), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mrs. Quickly), Britta Stallmeister (Nannetta), Shawn Mathey (Fenton), Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Dr. Cajus), Peter Marsh (Bardolfo), Carlos Krause (Pistola)
Katrin Hilbe (production), Hans Dieter Schaal (set designer), Angelika Rieck (costume designer), Zsolt Horpácsy and Peter Ross (stage directors), Olaf Winter (lighting designer), Alessandro Zuppardo (choral director)
Hans Drewanz (conductor), Frankfurter Museumsorchester

“Can honor fill your belly?” demands Falstaff in the first scene of Act I, sinking back into a kitschy 1950’s couch, adjusting his belt to allow for his enormous, but believable, beer belly.

Meet Sir John Falstaff, master hedonist, a highly sensual glutton whose every comfort is rooted in material life. In Katrin Hilbe’s three-year-old production of Verdi’s final work, the opera’s Windsor-based action is transposed from the time of Prince Hal to a run-down Italian hotel in the late 1950’s. There we find the vain and naïve Falstaff, replete with an Italian appetite for women and wine, as he attempts to seduce wealthy wives Alice Ford and Meg Page. Hired Mafiosi replace wood sprites for the intimidation tactics of Act III, and an in-house beauty parlor provides a realistic backdrop for the female scheming that takes place in Act I.

Verdi and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, would probably be pleased with this Falstaff-à-la-Fellini update as well as with the cast that brings it to life. In his first run as Falstaff, Stephen Kechulius has some big shoes to fill: recently European audiences have been privy to performances by prominent voices, Bryn Terfel and Ambrogio Maestri among them, who inhabit the role impressively. But Kechulius rises to the challenge. His buttery baritone vocals are paired with authentic acting ability and impeccable comic timing, and his previous experience with the emotional complexity in Verdi’s operas shows itself. Kechulius is careful to add tenderness to his interpretation; his subdued Act III delivery is infused with remorse, and the pathos of Falstaff’s vulnerability is present throughout. The opera may be a commedia lirica, but it is at moments a sad one, especially as we imagine what laughing stocks we too would be should our rationalizations and self-indulgences be subject to a sudden thaw.

As go-between Mrs. Quickly, Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux outshines her female counterparts. Uninhibited on stage, Quickly is an attention-grabber, though her flirtatious antics border on a distraction in her Act II encounter with Falstaff. As Nannetta, Britta Stallmeister is promising but occasionally sounds thin rather than wistful.

Johannes Martin Kränzle (Ford) and Shawn Mathey (Fenton) lead a strong male cast. Singers are supported by a competent orchestra, directed by Hans Drewanz, which settled into a tight performance after a jumpy start. Overall, the lighting (Olaf Winter), costumes (Angelika Rieck) and set design (Hans Dieter Schaal) provide a sound foundation for the work, filled with interesting subtleties that do not detract from the primacy of the music or the characters singing it. A tastefully timed entrance of a Korean tour group, for example, adds to the hectic confusion as Falstaff scrambles to save his skin by hiding in the hotel laundry bin.

Given the richness of the themes present in “The Merry Wives of Windsor ” and “Henry IV, ” the two Shakespearean texts at the heart of Boito’s libretto, we can imagine why Verdi was drawn out of retirement -- and back to his favorite poet, Shakespeare -- to embark on this opera at the age of 75. Frankfurt’s production is a successful rendering of Verdi’s career finale, one that amuses the audience as much as it engages it in laughter and self-reflection.

Alexandra Day



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