Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Opera San Jose: Verdi's Falstaff

September 7, 2013

Opera San Jose continues its flair for season-opening productions with "Falstaff," a festive, well-appointed affair providing baritone Scott Bearden with yet another chance to wow the locals.

Bearden, whose turns as Rigoletto have become the stuff of legend, deftly avoids the trap of playing the portly knight as mere cartoon. His bits of physical humor are more sly than broad (drowning in a basket of linens, wiggling his prodigious butt on the way to woo the ladies) and the rest of his performance gives Sir John a touching humanity. Buffoon, yes, but a buffoon who can deliver a lyric love song (the Act 2 lute song with Alice Ford), or a monologue on the dejecting nature of life (opening Act 3, following his public humiliation). As always, it's a treat watching Bearden operate.

Steven C. Kemp's all-purpose set is brilliantly clever - essentially, the inside of a wine cask, the stage braced by enormous rings emanating from a circular back wall. Also readily apparent is the presence of stage director Jose Maria Condemi (artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara) whose flair for physical comedy shows itself in the opening scene clowning of Falstaff's lieutenants, Pistola and Bardolfo (Silas Elash and Jonathan Smucker). Brutally hung over from the night before, the two take turns on the ground before a large cask, taking direct hits from the tap. Later, Bardolfo chases Dr. Caius (Robert Norman) across the room with a stinky anchovy.

The vocal dessert comes courtesy of our oppressed young lovers, Fenton and Nannetta. Cecilia Violetta Lopez's lovely soprano makes its greatest mark with her third-act spirit song, "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio," while James Callon displays his exquisitely lyric tenor in the third-act sonnet, "Dal labbro il canto."

Verdi's score doesn't allow for much in the way of showcase vocalizing. Approaching 80, the composer was far from stuck in his ways, and actively pursuing the ideas of through-composing and unified drama emanating from Wagner. That said, the best work from Falstaff's love targets, Alice Ford and Meg Page, comes in the form of brisk, tight ensembles, and in this soprano Jennifer Forni and mezzo Lisa Chavez excel, delivering bright tones and bright faces reminiscent of a good "Cosi fan tutte." Mezzo Nicole Birkland, meanwhile, offers sultrier tones as Dame Quickly, the crafter of the Merry Wives' artful revenge. Baritone Zachary Altman shines as Ford, delivering one of the score's few extended solo passages, the jealous arioso "E sogno?", with admirable force.

For sheer virtuosity, you can't beat the tennis match between Alice's female quartet and Ford's male quartet in Act 1 - sign of a septuagenarian genius playing with house money. The lack of extended songs almost leaves the impression of an opera without melodies, but in fact it's quite the opposite. As author Charles Osborne put it, "Verdi scatters tunes throughout Falstaff as though he were trying to give them away."

Andrew Whitfield leads the orchestra at a vigorous pace, keeping with a score that rarely slows down. A particular treat is the sonic stormfront that precedes Ford's jealous invasion in search of the pudgy interloper. The resultant ransacking of the residence is noteworthy for the sheer number of objects, especially small pieces of paper, available for scattering. The chaos is hilarious.

The costumes from Malabar Limited in Toronto are luscious, particularly the festive garden dresses of ladies Ford and Page (with their trademark broad-brimmed hats) and the enchanting blue-and-green sprite dresses of the final-act forest bewitching. Chloe Allen did an excellent job as Falstaff's child servant. A final nod to Arrigo Boito, who is unmatched when it comes to adapting Shakespeare to the operatic stage. His work on Falstaff and Otello is near-miraculous.

Through Sept. 22, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$111. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org. Alternating casts.

Images: Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez as Meg Page, soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Nanetta, mezzo-soprano Nicole Birkland as Dame Quickly and soprano Jennifer Forni as Alice Ford. Soprano Jennifer Forni as Alice Ford and baritone Scott Bearden as Falstaff. Tenor James Callon as Fenton (left), and baritone Zachary Altman as Ford (center). Photos by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novels "Operaville" and "Gabriella's Voice," available at amazon.com.

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