Monday, October 14, 2013

Lip-Synching Saves SFO's "Falstaff"

San Francisco Opera
Verdi's Falstaff
October 11, 2013

When the announcement came that Heidi Stober, playing Nannetta, was singing through a bad cold, I fully expected her to be fine. Stage adrenaline is a powerful force, and often carries performers right past their illnesses. In the first act, Stober gave signs of exactly this, unleashing a shimmering sustenato at the first appearance of Nannetta and Fenton's moon motif.

Alas, in the second act the bug won out, Stober's volume lessening with each passage. The subsequent intermission grew longer and longer (an hour and 12 minutes in all) while SFO's backstage forces crafted a marvelously inventive solution. Nikki Einfeld, a former SFO Adler fellow who lives locally (and had a role in the company's recent premiere of "Dolores Claiborne"), was rushed to the opera house. Einfeld, who sang Nannetta in 2008 at Edmonton Opera, sat at stage right with a score and sang the role as Stober acted it out. Especially considering the circumstances, Einfeld sang beautifully, particularly with Nannetta's invocation of the faeries, "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio," completed with a touching diminuendo. Stober did her part in completing the illusion (what form is more perfectly suited to lip-synching than opera?), and provided some unexpected humor when she forgot herself and began to sing a phrase.

Despite the backstage drama, the evening was all about Bryn Terfel, who is an absolute master when it comes to blending text, tone and feeling. The baritone has sung the role hundreds of times, and the depth of his understanding shows in the nuances. It often seems that he is considering each line even as he delivers it.

This sensation reveals itself most profoundly in the unexpectedly morose monologue that opens Act 3. Falstaff laments the public shaming that concluded Act 2, a deeply felt humiliation that leads him to acknowledge his long-lost youth. Terfel takes two phrases of this reverie and renders them in a lilting piano that breaks the heart: "Go thy way, John," a sad reference to the exultant aria of Act 2, and the simple admission, "My hair has gone white."

These humanizing passages are what separates Verdi's opera from mere farce. The composer and his brilliant librettist, Boito, were well aware that the Falstaff of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is a mere caricature, that the real Falstaff, one of the most fully human figures in Shakespeare, appears in the history plays. (Boito even borrowed a few lines from Henry IV, Part One to bolster his effort). Terfel applies an artful slapstick to the cartoon of the first two acts, but always conveys the sense that there's something deeper going on behind that big stomach.

The rest of the cast delivers a feast befitting a glutton, beginning with soprano Ainhoa Arteta, who gives a radiant presence to Alice Ford (in fact, too radiant - if we're going to believe she's Nannetta's mother, at least give the woman a matronly hat or something). Playing Dame Quickly, Meredith Arwady delivers a booming contralto and a flare for physical comedy that makes her a fitting opponent for Falstaff in their many confrontations. A couple of bonuses are basso profundo Andrea Silvestrelli as the henchman Pistola and the buzzing spinto and evershaking presence of tenor Joel Sorenson as the pathetic Dr. Caius.

A couple of singers appeared to be in hiding until their spotlight moments. Baritone Fabio Capitanucci warms up to Ford once he gets good and ticked off (the jealous arioso "E sogno?"), while tenor Francesco Demuro shines brightest in Fenton's Act 3 showpiece, "Dal labbro il canto."

Frank Philipp Schlossmann's 1999 set is a mad conglomeration of windows, doors, drawers and village shops, all fashioned from wooden staves meant to resemble the inside of a wine barrel. All these openings come in handy during the ransacking search for Falstaff, which resembles a ticker-tape parade using dirty laundry instead of confetti. Schlossman's costumery came to a comic peak with Falstaff's wooing outfit, an all-red suit that makes it appear as if Valentine's Day has puked all over him.

Nicola Luisotti appeared, as usual, as if he were having entirely too much fun, and though it's hard to pick out a moment, I enjoyed the dancing strings beneath Falstaff's laying out of his love plot in Act 1. As happens with all masterworks, this one reveals tasty new tidbits wth each viewing. The final chorus is introduced with the opening chords of Il Trovatore's famed Anvil Chorus. The second comes in a moment of grand complexity in Act 2, when Verdi, nearing 80, juxtaposes a female quartet with a male quartet, and places Fenton at center, lamenting his cruel fate.The sheer logistics of the scene are mind-boggling.

Through November 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $23-$385,, 415/864-3330.

Images: Bryn Terfel (Falstaff) and Ainhoa Arteta (Alice Ford). Nikki Einfeld in a performance of "The Barber of Seville." Heidi Stober (Nannetta), Ainhoa Arteta (Alice Ford), Renee Rapier (Meg Page) and Meredith Arwady (Dame Quickly). First and third photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novels Gabriella's Voice and Operaville (free on Kindle Oct. 15-16), available at

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