17 April 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — FALSTAFF (R. Zeller, C. Blackburn, V. Erickson, L. Crenshaw, I. DeSmit, T. Beliy, K. Brotherton, M. Friedrich, L. Sparks, R. Powell; UNCG Opera Theatre, 4 April 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): FalstaffRichard Zeller (Sir John Falstaff), Christian J. Blackburn (Ford), Victoria Erickson (Alice Ford), Leanna Crenshaw (Nannetta), Ian DeSmit (Fenton), Tamara Beliy (Meg Page), Kayla Brotherton (Mistress Quickly), Michael Friedrich (Dottore Cajus), Lorenze Sparks (Bardolfo), Reginald Powell (Pistola); UNCG Opera Theatre Chorus and Orchestra; Peter Perret, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; Jonathan Emmons, Chorus Master; James Austin Porzenski, Assistant Chorus Master; Randall McMullen, Scene Designer; Caleb Taylor, Lighting Designer; Deborah Bell, Costume Designer; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 4 April 2019]

Be they the work of one man, one woman, or some unidentified consortium, the plays attributed to William Shakespeare have individually and collectively exerted influence on Western art to an extent rivaled by no other body of work. Writers have emulated, adapted, and expanded them, painters and sculptors have added visual dimensions to their characters and situations, and musicians have given melodies to their cadences. What might be described as the Shakespearean diaspora is perhaps more extensive in opera than in any other art form. Just as the plays have been translated into more languages than Shakespeare could ever have imagined, operas have rendered stories drawn from or inspired by Shakespeare in a broad array of musical styles. From the English Baroque of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to the Twentieth-Century modernism of Aribert Reimann’s Lear, Shakespeare’s uncanny mastery of dissecting, analyzing, and magnifying the most intimate mechanics of humanity has begotten similarly astute creations for the operatic stage, not least in scores by Giuseppe Verdi. He also planned a setting of King Lear that sadly never came to fruition, but with his early Macbeth and his valedictory serious and comic operas, Otello and Falstaff, Verdi produced a triumvirate of thrilling pieces in which the Bard’s timeless stories are retold with rousing Italian morbidezza.

Premièred at one of Verdi’s artistic homes, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, on 9 February 1893, Falstaff was the composer’s final opera and only his second comedy. His first effort at comic opera, Un giorno di regno, was composed during a time of personal tragedy, and the poor reception the opera’s inaugural production received in 1840 not only convinced Verdi that his affinity was for serious opera but nearly prompted him to stop composing operas altogether. Forty years later, it was with great reluctance that Verdi agreed to end his decade-long hiatus from composing new scores by setting Arrigo Boito’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The tremendous success of that enterprise paved the way for Falstaff, the libretto for which Boito masterfully assembled from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Parts One and Two of Henry IV. Doubting his instincts for viable comedy, Verdi toiled for three years over the composition of Falstaff, completing the score as his eightieth birthday neared. The hope for a repeat of Otello’s success proved to be well founded. Extolled as one of Italian opera’s greatest comic masterpieces, Falstaff crowned Verdi’s career with a score that continues to entertain and invigorate.

Sung in an amusing if none-too-Shakespearean English translation by Walter Ducloux [for the benefit of readers who are not acquainted with the English translation, textual references in this review adhere to Boito’s Italian], David Holley’s production of Falstaff for UNCG Opera Theatre ingeniously permitted a cast of undergraduate and graduate students to benefit from sharing the stage with world-renowned baritone Richard Zeller’s portrayal of the opera’s title rôle. Relocating the opera’s action from its original setting in the first quarter of the Fifteenth Century to the Victorian era was visually credible but occasionally at odds with the text. Neither lutes nor daughters trained to play them are likely to have been found in even the most affluent Victorian households, and, following the death of Prince Albert on 14 December 1861, Windsor was one of the principal seats of Queen Victoria’s prolonged grief for her consort. Moreover, the first tree claimed to be Herne’s Oak having fallen in 1796 and a second tree espoused by Victoria as the genuine oak following it to the arboreal graveyard in 1863, UNCG Opera Theatre’s merry wives might have encountered difficulties with selecting the locale for their recreation of the legendary huntsman’s fate.

Unsurprisingly, however, Holley’s direction sought and found the spirit of Falstaff in Verdi’s score, preferring the lighter hues of the music to its darker undertones but accentuating the ridiculous without overdoing the ridicule. Flawed and infuriating as he is, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is peculiarly endearing. In the supportive environment provided by Holley’s direction, Zeller’s characterization of Verdi’s Falstaff wielded genuine Shakespearean mystique.

Though mostly appealing, especially in the second part of Act Three, Deborah Bell’s costume designs and Caleb Taylor’s lighting did little to differentiate among singers of similar ages portraying characters of varying years and social stations. Alice Ford must not be frumpy, for instance, but costumes and coiffures can more effectively facilitate distinguishing that she and Nannetta are mother and daughter. In this production, that task was left to the young singers, who were already charged with singing some of the most difficult music in Italian opera. Randall McMullen’s set designs combined creative use of space with attractive utilitarianism: a frugally-minded director might also successfully stage the second acts of Lucia di Lammermoor and Der Rosenkavalier in McMullen’s rendering of Ford’s house in this Falstaff. Visually, the impression made by the production was more Dickensian than Shakespearean, but the staging validated W.H. Auden’s assessment in The Dyer’s Hand that Falstaff is ‘a character whose true home is the world of music.’

IN REVIEW: baritone RICHARD ZELLER in the title rôle in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Stag on the prowl: baritone Richard Zeller in the title rôle of UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

It is difficult for the most extraordinary production of Falstaff to thrive with an ordinary Falstaff. Despite countless audiences having endured badly-sung performances, the unfortunate misconception that, in opera, comedy equates with music that is easy to sing persists. Richard Zeller’s portrayal of Falstaff for UNCG Opera Theatre offered a lesson in the art of embodying operatic hilarity without sacrificing musical integrity. Vitally, the baritone’s English diction was consistently clear.

In Act One, Zeller sang ‘Ecco la mia riposta’ with an apt insinuation of bourgeois ennui, and he rose to the top F in ‘L’arte sta in questa massima’ with ringing virility that suited the text. The conversational brusqueness of his parlando passages was complemented by the elegant legato of his voicing of ‘So che se andiam la notte.’ The slightly decrepit lecher’s carnal appetite was delightfully apparent in Zeller’s reading of ‘M’arde a l’estro amatorio nel cor,’ the voice mellifluously conveying libidinous passion. Vexed by Bardolfo’s and Pistola’s protestations against the dishonor of delivering amorous messages to Alice Ford and Meg Page [that duty was fulfilled by the old knight’s page Robin, charmingly acted by Dean Hennessee], this Falstaff’s ‘Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia?’ was an expression of indignation of cyclonic force. The top Gs were not wholly comfortable, but a voice with effortless top Gs is unlikely to be a suitable instrument for Falstaff’s music.

The ebullient personality that Zeller crafted in Act One was meticulously maintained in the two subsequent acts. It was only in the sense of the character’s more advanced age that Zeller was obviously a veteran performer amongst a cast of twenty-somethings: he brought a buoyant impishness to Falstaff’s antics. In the first scene of Act Two, he voiced the brilliant soliloquy ‘Va, vecchio John’ with the rich tone and dramatic finesse that it deserves. Duped by the Ford ladies and their cohorts, Zeller’s Falstaff suffered accompanying the laundry into the Thames with the dread of an accomplished trickster getting a taste of his own medicine. The first scene of Act Three can differentiate an eminent Falstaff from a merely proficient one, and the vulnerability that mingled with the self-pity in Zeller’s depiction of the crestfallen man’s emergence from his riparian comeuppance identified him as a Falstaff of superlative intellectual perspicacity.

The singer’s balletic entrance into Windsor Park in the opera’s final scene emphasized Falstaff’s relish of his own cunning, but his trepidation when he realized that he was the prey rather than the predator was touching. The bitterness of Falstaff’s declaration of ‘Ogni sorta di gente dozzinale’ was convincingly followed by the self-deprecating good humor of ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla,’ both sung sonorously by Zeller. In the Verdi canon, Falstaff is a rôle in which many fine exponents of Macbeth, Rigoletto, and Iago have failed. Giuseppe Taddei, a standard-setting interpreter of ‘vecchio John,’ understood that, musically and dramatically, Falstaff is a brother not of his fellow Verdi characters but of Donizetti’s Dulcamara and Don Pasquale. In this performance, Zeller exhibited complete cognizance of this distinction. As the cliché goes, this Falstaff’s bark was more perilous than his bite, but Zeller barked considerably less than many Falstaffs.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor LORENZE SPARKS as Bardolfo, baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Falstaff, and bass REGINALD POWELL as Pistola in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Bosom[-loving] buddies: (from left to right) tenor Lorenze Sparks as Bardolfo, baritone Richard Zeller as Falstaff, and bass Reginald Powell as Pistola in UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

An asset to the performance as great as Zeller’s interpretation of Falstaff was the presence of Peter Perret on the podium. The longtime Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, Perret has regrettably been an infrequent presence in performances of vocal music in North Carolina’s Triad region in recent seasons. A stirring performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures—a piece that was first performed only six years after Falstaff’s première—with the Winston-Salem Symphony and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves some years ago revealed the conductor’s affinity for marshaling vocal and orchestral resources, and his pacing of Falstaff confirmed that his leadership remains strikingly lucid and eloquent.

Aided by Jonathan Emmons’s expert training of the chorus, Perret supervised the edification of a musical foundation that unassailably supported the score’s abundant marvels. Again, this is not easy music, the mercurial ensembles and intricate contrapuntal writing bringing many performers to grief. There were moments of uncertain coordination between stage and pit in this performance, but Perret navigated a sagacious course through the opera’s challenges without losing anyone along the way. Orchestral playing adhered to a commendably high standard, though here, too, there were occasional missteps. Woodwinds were especially, inexplicably, and sometimes distractingly prominent, a condition observed in other performances in this venue but perhaps not discernible from the pit. Experience demonstrates that Perret is too sensitive a collaborator to permit any section of the orchestra to dominate the soundscape. Even with the English text, which can cause Italian opere buffe to sound disconcertingly like Savoy operas, Perret ensured that Verdi’s voice was always audible.

Engaging a singer of Richard Zeller’s reputation to interpret the title rôle in this production of Falstaff is evidence of the respect that David Holley commands in the opera community, but the greater accomplishment—and the one that is the truest measure of his importance to opera, both in and beyond Greensboro—is the quality of the ensemble of young artists he assembled to learn from Zeller’s Falstaff. Though his responsibilities as the proprietor of the Garter Inn required no singing, Liston Kidd was committed as innkeeper, chorister, and prankster on stilts. Michael Friedrich’s implacable Dottore Cajus complained of being swindled and schemed to claim Nannetta’s hand in matrimony with equal enthusiasm and tonal solidity. Tenor Lorenze Sparks and bass Reginald Powell sang Bardolfo’s and Pistola’s music with vocal assurance and sure-footed comedic timing, not least when decrying the disgrace of Falstaff instructing them to dispatch his billets-doux to the objects of his romantic infatuation.

IN REVIEW: soprano LEANNA CRENSHAW as Nannetta (center) in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Sylvan songstress: soprano Leanna Crenshaw as Nannetta (center) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Tamara Beliy and Amber Rose Romero, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Verdi composed the rôle of Mistress Quickly in Falstaff for Giuseppina Pasqua, who had sung Eboli in the 1884 première of the revised version of his Don Carlo at La Scala and was acclaimed in both Naples and Milan for her portrayals of Preziosilla in La forza del destino and Amneris in Aida. The tessitura of Quickly’s music separates her from her Verdian sisters, but Kayla Brotherton’s singing in Greensboro affirmed the character’s musical pedigree. Epitomized by her emblematic utterances of ‘Reverenza,’ Quickly’s low compass necessitated tonal placement that deprived Brotherton’s lovely voice of opportunities to be heard to optimal advantage. Nevertheless, the panache with which she sang ‘Quell’uom è un cannone’ in Act One and Quickly’s lines in her exchange with Falstaff in the first scene of Act Two disclosed her carefully-honed artistic prowess. In the final scene, Brotherton intoned ‘Cavaliero, voi credeste due donne così grulle’ lustrously, her feisty vocalism animating the character’s part in the woodland escapade. Vocally, Mistress Quickly is not a congenial part for young singers, but Brotherton’s performance was that of a seasoned professional.

Tenor Ian DeSmit brought to the lovesick Fenton precisely what Verdi wanted but so seldom receives: a dulcet, youthful timbre and a gratifyingly straightforward depiction of an impressionable but ardent man in love. In Act One, DeSmit sang ‘È un ribaldo, un furbo, un ladro’ handsomely before joining with Nannetta in an account of ‘Labbra di fiore!’ that exuded innocent rapture, his bright top B♭ punctuating their playful banter. This Fenton voiced his aria that begins Act Three, ‘Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola,’ with smooth tone and suave phrasing, convincingly limning the character’s fervor without distorting the delicate melodic line. That he laudably delivered his impassioned words of love to Nannetta rather than bawling them to the audience meant that DeSmit’s voice did not always project strongly into the house, and he was the foremost victim of the acoustical imbalance between stage and pit. He was too shrewd to force his voice in pursuit of volume, instead relying upon his dynamic acting. DeSmit’s performance highlighted Fenton’s sincerity, his awareness of the stakes in the game of chance orchestrated by the ladies making the swain far more than the pretty-voiced cipher that he is in many productions.

DeSmit’s Fenton was ably partnered by the effervescently mischievous Nannetta of soprano Leanna Crenshaw. In both her conspiratorial discourse with her mother, Meg, and Quickly and her flirtatious interactions with Fenton, this Nannetta was sweetly girlish but also very much her own woman. She voiced ‘Labbra di foco!’ with understated bliss, her floated top A♭s suggesting subtle teasing of her eager lover. In consort with Alice and the ladies, the gleam of her top Bs imparted a very different attitude, one of determination to avenge Falstaff’s affront to womanhood. Crenshaw’s voice soared in ensembles and in Nannetta’s Act Three song with the pantomime fairies, ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.’ Often entrusted to diminutive voices, Nannetta’s music benefits tremendously from a fuller sound such as Crenshaw’s, and the soprano’s unaffected thespianism fostered a captivating portrayal of the Fords’ plucky daughter.

IN REVIEW: baritones RICHARD ZELLER as Falstaff (left) and CHRISTIAN BLACKBURN as Ford (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's FALSTAFF [Photograph by Martin Kane, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Men about town: baritones Richard Zeller as Falstaff (left) and Christian Blackburn as Ford (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s April 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
[Photograph by Martin Kane, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

With the respective dramas of the elder and junior branches of the House of Ford dominating the opera, Meg Page is marginalized in some productions of Falstaff. Soprano Tamara Beliy’s Meg in UNCG Opera Theatre’s Falstaff could not be overlooked, her vocal confidence paralleled by her vivid characterization. In her reading of Falstaff’s letter to Alice, Beliy declaimed ‘Fulgida Alice! amor t’offro’ with genuinely amusing fury. Her Meg seemed more gobsmacked by the stupidity of Falstaff’s sending of identically-worded letters to herself and Alice than by the indiscretion of his intentions. Whether strategizing or exacting vengeance, Beliy sang incisively. Like Brotherton, the music assigned to her in this Falstaff did not enable Beliy to display the best of her vocal artistry, but her portrayal of Meg was one of the best aspects of this Falstaff.

A quick-thinking champion of women’s independence who masterminds triumphs over both a bumbling seducer and a jealous husband, Alice Ford is a worthy sister of opera’s greatest feminist protagonists. In UNCG Opera Theatre’s Falstaff, Alice waged her wars against male domination with pointed wit and sparkling tone, wielded with comedic potency by soprano Victoria Erickson. Upon her arrival in the second scene of Act One, her Alice took charge of the drama like a military commander, singing ‘Facciamo il pario in un amor ridente’ and ‘Falstaff m’ha canzonata’ like calls to arms. Her resolute top Bs and earnest attempts at the trills were testaments to her technique and preparation, especially as every note of her music was sung with the appearance of spontaneity.

Erickson’s talents as a comedienne were invaluable in the hubbub of Act Two: even as Falstaff trumpeted his objections from the laundry basket, Alice remained the center of attention, her elation as Ford, expecting to surprise his wife with her paramour, discovered Nannetta and Fenton behind the screen galvanizing the ensemble. As Alice’s plans came to fruition in Act Three, Erickson’s vocalism became still bolder, the character’s ascendancy crowned by the singer’s rousing top C. Most consequentially, Erickson led her fellow ladies in avoiding confusing The Merry Wives of Windsor with The Taming of the Shrew. Though clearly pleased with the outcome of her quest for retribution, Erickson’s Alice stopped short of gloating, enjoying her supremacy without unpleasantness.

Though Falstaff is the title character and the focal point of the comedy, Ford is the opera’s ‘Verdi baritone’ rôle in the tradition of Rigoletto, Rodrigo di Posa, and Iago. This is not always perceptible in performances of Falstaff, but baritone Christian Blackburn furnished UNCG Opera Theatre’s production with a Ford who comprehended and respected the rôle’s significance in the lineage of Verdi’s writing for the baritone voice. Dramatically, Blackburn lent Ford the natural authority that he should wield even when, whilst impersonating Fontana in order to gain Falstaff’s trust without being suspected of being Alice’s husband, subjected to a silly disguise, but it was his singing that served Verdi most honorably. In Act One’s second scene, he voiced both ‘Sorveglierò la moglie’ and ‘A lui m’annuncierete’ powerfully, deepening his interpretation of the rôle beyond the possessiveness that defines some Fords. The intelligence and expressivity with which Blackburn sang ‘È sogno o realtà’ in the first scene of Act Two introduced the ambivalence of Ford’s sentiments at once being deadly serious and amusingly pompous in the opera’s broader context.

Merely as vocalism on a suitably Verdian scale, Blackburn’s account of ‘Io già disposi la rete mia’ in Act Two was admirable, and his theatrical savvy heightened his connection with the text. There was a bemused smugness in the baritone’s pronouncement of ‘Già s’avanza il corteggio nuziale’ in Act Three, his Ford having figuratively counted his chickens before they hatched, and this was followed by an unmistakably bitter articulation of ‘Chi schivare non può la propria noia.’ Rather than lingering over his wounded pride, this Ford rejoiced in having a wife such as Alice, whose machinations were a credit to the family’s standing in their community. Throughout the performance, his comfort with the full range of the music, his nuanced phrasing, and the maturity of his portrayal of the insecure but devoted husband and father belied Blackburn’s youth, further marking him as a singer whose wondrous promise is already being realized.

An integral component of the lasting comic effectiveness of Verdi’s final opera is the fact that at some point in life almost everyone meets a Falstaff. Perhaps he is not portly, of a certain age, philandering, or even male, but he is undeniably a kinsman of Shakespeare’s iconic denizen of the Garter. The splendor of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Falstaff was the open-hearted happiness with which it renewed acquaintance with this old friend. Above all, this production was a reminder that, his superb music notwithstanding, Verdi’s greatest accomplishment in Falstaff is perhaps encouraging people of different ages, faiths, and lifestyles to sit shoulder to shoulder in a darkened theater, laughing together in a world that thrives on the pain of division.