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Undercooked 'Falstaff'

Timothy Mix (Ford) in the Jealousy Aria, Falstaff, Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)
On Saturday night Washington National Opera opened the second production of its downsized fall season, Verdi's Falstaff. The regrettable postponement of the company's American Ring Cycle led to a hasty but resourceful reconfiguration of this year's programming, quickly putting together a group of operas that could allow the company and the singers to honor their existing contracts. On one hand, these circumstances caused WNO to return to this masterpiece -- Verdi's last and perhaps greatest opera, definitely on my short list for best comic opera ever composed -- for the first time in over a quarter-century. On the other, it is lamentable to hear it performed in a musically uninspired way, with this magnificent score generally outclassing a cast that was vocally adequate at best. All too often, a quasi-chaotic sloppiness undermined some of the ingenious and musically complex ensembles.

Alan Opie was drafted on short notice to replace Gordon Hawkins in the title role, who had originally been picked as Ford, so it has been something of a carousel cast. He won high praise for the role a decade ago, but although he remained humorous enough in his acting, his voice has faded, at least as heard on Saturday night, making for an oddly understated Falstaff. (Just for comparison, the WNO's last Falstaff, in 1982, featured none other than Thomas Stewart as the fat knight.) Young soprano Tamara Wilson got the job done as Alice Ford but did not soar when she needed to soar, as on the dramatic line at "Ma il viso tuo su me risplenderà." Elizabeth Bishop was similarly pale as Meg Page, making Nancy Maultsby, also heard as Quickly with Santa Fe Opera in 2008, the best part of the wives' quartet. Robin Leggate was clear and cutting as Dr. Caius, and Russian bass and former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Grigory Soloviov stood out for a robust sound as Pistola on the male side.

JiYoung Lee (Fairy Queen) and dancers en travesti, Falstaff, Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)
As Ford, Timothy Mix acted well but did not have the needed snarl for most of the character's jealous rages, except for the Jealousy Aria, when he was placed at the very front of the stage, with a scrim positioning an enormous pair of horns on his head (image shown above). JiYoung Lee, who has had some success in the roles given her by WNO since her apprenticeship there, was a disappointment as Nannetta, an overactive vibrato souring flat on the part's angelic high notes. Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, described the young lovers' music as something he wanted to sprinkle throughout the opera "like powdered sugar on a cake," more airy than spicy. As Fenton, former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Yingxi Zhang was more on the mark, singing with the same sweet ping he had as Pong in last season's Turandot.

Ironically, given my state of ambivalence about the singing, the production whipped together by Christian Räth was inventive, odd, and ultimately pleasing. The concept underscored the theatricality of the story, with all of the characters beginning the opera in modern dress on an empty stage of costume boxes and half-assembled set pieces, actors who go to great lengths in their attempts to deceive others. The sets, borrowed from a traditional production (designed by Hayden Griffin) seen at Covent Garden and elsewhere, are assembled gradually, appearing whole only in the two scenes of Falstaff's defeat, the Elizabethan house from which he is thrown into the Thames with the laundry and the park of the fairies with its enormous oak tree. The drag queen brides that surrounded Nannetta's Fairy Queen in that final scene coincided nicely with the following day's marriage equality march.

The Merry Wives as the cast of The View, Falstaff, Washington National Opera (photo by Karin Cooper)
The play within a play idea, which Räth claims, in his program note, was inspired by Verdi's libretto, is more in keeping with the source play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, supposedly written because Queen Elizabeth wanted to see the character of Falstaff, from the plays about Henry IV and Henry V, in love -- in effect, an artificial play about characters from a play. In fact, not only the sets are gradually assembled, the characters begin in modern dress (costume updating by Timm Burrow and Räth) -- Bardolph and Pistola as stage hands snacking out of an old pizza box, Falstaff served by a headset-wearing stage manager, the wives as the cast of The View or the local Oprah's Book Club getting even with the men in their lives -- and put on their period costumes (designed by Michael Stennett) as part of the theatrical deceit. We even see the fat knight putting on a fat suit to play his part. It was hard not to be reminded of David Mamet's film State and Main, which I have been obsessively rewatching lately and in which art often seems more real to the characters than life.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera Performs Verdi's 'Falstaff' (Washington Post, October 12)

T. L. Ponick, Room to grow in 'Falstaff' (Washington Times, October 12)

Tim Smith, Fresh treatment of 'Falstaff' at Kennedy Center (Baltimore Sun, October 13)
As a deconstructive modernization of Falstaff this was much more successful than the disastrous Kirov Opera production in 2007. In the orchestra as on stage, there were fine individual performances -- especially the mercurial woodwinds, who had lovely solos all evening long and a mind-whirling performance as the trilling of intoxication that warms Falstaff's belly -- but as a whole it was a sloppy ensemble. Some more rehearsal time could have been beneficial, because it is a complicated score that is clearly not in the ensemble's memory. The gestures of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, a young but by no means inexperienced conductor, became more urgent and wild as things drifted apart, especially during the ensembles, but he was unable to rein in his forces. In spite of these drawbacks heard on opening night -- the musical quality of this production will hopefully improve -- anyone who is not yet familiar with this superb opera is nonetheless encouraged to attend a performance of it. Offers of tickets at reduced prices have reportedly been forthcoming, a concession that will hopefully allow more music lovers to take part.

Washington National Opera will present six more performance of Falstaff from this evening (October 12, 7 pm) through October 30 (7:30 pm), when it should be a distinctive Halloween ticket. Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Micaëla Oeste will get a crack at Nannetta in the last three performances, for which she is probably better suited vocally than Siegfried's Wood Bird.


Anonymous said...

You write that "The gestures of Sebastian Lang-Lessing...became more urgent and wild as things drifted apart, especially during the ensembles, but he was unable to rein in his forces." I can tell you that the passages that were not together in performance were never together in rehearsal either. Your understanding of how conductors influence things is backwards. It is precisely that wildness that precludes good ensemble. Fast and intricate music requires, paradoxically, more concise and controlled motions from a conductor. This does not preclude speed and pizzazz: if things are in sync and in control, accents and inflections are much more effective. Sadly, many conductors seem to feel that their role is to somehow make the music with their adrenaline and stomping on the podium, rather than to help guide and inspire the creation of the music by those with voices and instruments. Conductors with this existential wisdom about their role are all too rare.

Charles T. Downey said...

Anonymous, I was actually trying to say precisely that -- that the fault lies primarily at the podium. I appreciate your perspective and would welcome any other information you want to share by e-mail or phone. You would remain a confidential source, of course.