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'Falstaff' at Wolf Trap

(L to R) Tracy Cox (Alice Ford), Mireille Asselin (Nannetta), Margaret Gawrysiak (Quickly),
and Carolyn Sproule (Meg) in Falstaff, Wolf Trap Opera, 2013 (photo by Carol Pratt)

Five years after Wolf Trap Opera presented Verdi's first and only other comedy, Un Giorno di Regno, the company let the other shoe drop. Their new production of Verdi's Falstaff is timed conveniently with the composer's bicentennial year, an event marked by most summer festivals this year. Heard on opening night yesterday, in the small theater at the Barns, it is a pleasing if not ideal version of this most masterful of Verdi's operas.

available at Amazon
Verdi, Falstaff, T. Gobbi, E. Schwarzkopf, L. Alva, A. Moffo, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, H. von Karajan
The cast of young artists performs at a high level, led by the Alice Ford of dramatic soprano Tracy Cox, a juicy and puissant voice, and the Ford of baritone Norman Garrett, towering in presence and both powerful and refined in sound. Their foil, the hilarious and pompous Falstaff of bass-baritone Craig Colclough, showed remarkable range in the role after an imposing Commendatore and sly Shadow in last year's Don Giovanni and The Rake's Progress. Margaret Gawyrsiak, who stole the show last season as Baba the Turk, came close to doing the same as a guest artist Mistress Quickly, and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule was a comely Meg.

Herbert von Karajan is to blame for me thinking that every Nannetta should sound like Anna Moffo, when in fact no one does, but Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin came admirably close, a slight tendency to sharpness aside, with a radiantly transparent sound as the Queen of the Fairies. Tenor Matthew Grills, a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Winner last year, was her equal as Fenton, with a pretty sound and solid high notes, revealing no sound of strain, in the gorgeous aria that introduces the final scene. The supporting cast were also in good form -- the braying Caius of tenor Juan José de León, the bright-nosed, Scarecrow-like Bardolfo of Brenton Ryan, and the rotten-toothed Pistola of Aaron Sorenson -- rounding out a well-balanced ensemble that made the most of the exquisite and rollicking fugue with which Verdi adroitly ends the opera, the most savant of rib-jabs.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Wolf Trap Opera’s ‘Falstaff’ is intimate and memorable (Washington Post, April 12)

Previously Reviewed Productions:

Washington National Opera (2009)
Munich Opera Festival (2009)
Santa Fe Opera (2008)
Mariinsky Opera (2007)
The downside is that the constraints of the small pit at the Barns required the use of Jonathan Dove's reduction of Verdi's orchestral score for fifteen players (though without the harpist also having to double on the cymbal part as far as I could tell). It is a necessary evil, but still a regrettable one, which takes much of the shine off of Verdi's wizardly score, especially in the diaphanous fairy scene (all those tripled winds and shimmering string effects). By this point in his long career, Verdi knew exactly how to craft every musical effect, and the Dove arrangement made for a tinny instrumental sound, particularly ugly with the strings one on a part, that made for unsatisfying tutti climaxes (after Falstaff's Honor Aria and Ford's Jealousy Aria, for example). The reduction was also responsible for throwing off the balances with the singers, who often sounded jarringly loud without the full orchestration to support them. Dean Williamson did an adequate job at the podium, but the many rhythmic complexities of the ensemble scenes did not come together quite perfectly yet (some of the quick banter, "È lei -- È lui," got garbled, for example), perhaps because the singers had troubles hearing the reduced forces in the pit.

Tomer Zvulun's staging felt suitably Shakespearean, with Globe Theater-like wood set pieces that moved into two positions and were augmented by minimal props to create a sense of the scene (sets by Erhard Rom) and colorful, slightly overdone costumes (designed by Vita Tzykun). Zvulun shrewdly took advantage of the intimacy of the Barns in skillful acting direction, with many great laughs built into the opera through carefully timed and subtle looks and gestures. If the evening felt more like a scaled-down but top-notch collegiate production than the grand comic opera it should be, it was still a bubbly and fun evening in the theater.

This production continues through August 17, in the Barns at Wolf Trap.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The young singers at WTOC are always good.. This production is no exception. Since the orchestra pit space is limited, the reduced orchestra is an inevitable compromise .
To not do Falstaff is not a solution . WTOC should not limit it's rep to early 19th cent and before, with the occasional Britten chamber opera thrown in.
Hearing this does whet the appetite for the Met's new production, due in December, and on HD. Now that's an orchestra! and with Levine conducting, it should be good.

But go see it this week at WTOC .. Only the mega rich get this close to the singers at the Met..