Conductor Joseph Rescigno Returns to Virginia Opera
At the end of the opera Falstaff, the title character declares “All the world is a jest.” Verdi was 79 when the opera came to the stage and it had taken him almost a year to create his masterly orchestration. It is a meticulous work as we learned when Joseph Rescigno led the Virginia Opera Orchestra peopled with top players of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in a nuanced performance. The rhythmic sparkle and orchestral finesse is essential for the comedy to work. Maestro Rescigno provided the secure musical structure that underlies the freely declaimed monologues bathed in melodic abundance. At the end of the opera everything and everyone fall into place in an exuberant ten-part fugue, one of Maestro Rescigno’s two favorite moments in opera. This cascade of merriment brought the evening to a delightful end.
Virginia Opera Falstaff
Say Verdi, and the mind jumps to his great operatic tragedies—La Traviata, Il Trovatore, MacBeth, Rigoletto, Aida, Otello. You’d think you’d have to look elsewhere for laughs—but not so.
Virginia Opera opened its 39th season September 27th with Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) richly comic Falstaff, his last opera, written in his late seventies. Boito’s complex but amusing libretto gave the composer a complex, amusing character—Sir John Falstaff, who appears in three Shakespearean plays, Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor. He’s a fat, lecherous, over-the-hill trickster down on his luck, who still sees himself as an irresistibly seductive lover. He meets his match when he tries to put the moves on two wealthy married women, Alice Ford and Meg Page, sending them identical love letters. Not a good move.
Baritone Stephen Powell sets a high standard for the cast. His huge but very musical voice and wonderfully nuanced acting bring out not only the old rogue’s ridiculous self-delusions but the rueful moments when Falstaff has intimations of mortality. Powell’s comic timing and vocal agility shine as his character describes how Alice will succumb to his charms, singing her cooing surrender in a surprising falsetto—completely unexpected, and utterly hilarious.
As Alice Ford (okay, a-LEE-chay—it is an Italian opera), Cuban-born soprano Elizabeth Caballero has spunk—and splendid pipes. She organizes the women’s revenge on Falstaff. Contralto Ann McMahon Quintero is Mistress Quickly, with a creamy, dark voice and an imposing décolletage; as the go-between, she gets Falstaff to come to the Ford house so Alice and Meg can play a trick on him.
With strength and presence, baritone Weston Hurt sings jealous John Ford, Alice’s husband. He doesn’t know it’s all a trick, and shows up with reinforcements to search the house. Alice and Meg bundle Falstaff into a big laundry basket and have him dumped out the window into the Thames below. It’s all a very fast-moving slapstick shell game (who’s hidden in what basket?), with pairs of characters in sporting garb—cricket, tennis, rugby, golf—running through the back of the set. Why? Who cares! It’s funny! Think Woody Allen with the Keystone Cops.
And in Act III, it’s both funny and sad to watch Falstaff totter very slowly across the stage, lamenting that a noble knight could be treated so ignobly.
But the fun’s not over: Alice, Meg and Mistress Quickly plot further revenge, and arrange a tryst in the garden at night. Meanwhile, Nannetta, Alice’s schoolgirl daughter, loves young Fenton but is being forced by her father to marry the clerical twit Dr. Caius. But the Windsor wives know what to do about that, too.
When Falstaff shows up for his garden tryst, he’s captured, poked, prodded, teased, and tormented by the masked plotters, and finally admits that he’s been played for a fool—in a way, it’s a relief for him.
Soprano Amanda Opuszynski is a charming Nanetta, pertly Gigi-like in schoolgirl braids but entrancing in her Queen of the Fairies disguise; her voice grows with her character. Tenor Aaron Blake ably and tenderly sings her lovelorn beau Fenton.
Meg Page, sung by mezzo Courtney Miller, gives good support to Caballero’s more insistent character. Dr. Caius is really a stock character, but tenor Ryan Connelly sings him well. Falstaff’s servants Bardolfo and Pistola— stock characters too— are given comic life and indefatigable energy by tenor Jeffrey Halili and bass Jeffrey Tucker.
It’s not easy to keep all the balls in the air all the time for something as frothy as this— but stage director Stephen Lawless has made wonderfully imaginative choices that move the action right along, especially when John Ford and his men pile laundry baskets and furniture together to make a slow-moving barricade from which to attack Falstaff. It’s a great sight joke, and the audience howled with appreciation. One might ask how and why Mistress Quickly rolled her tea cart everywhere, but it really doesn’t matter.
Scenic and costume designer Russell Craig set this Falstaff apparently in a near-deserted theatre. Various large baskets are labeled with the names of Shakespearean plays—Macbeth, Lear, Midsummer Night’s Dream, etc.—allusions that make sense in the final scene. I particularly liked John Ford’s shooting outfit (very Downton Abbey!) and Falstaff’s highly detailed court outfit, with cloak and sashes—even an Order of the Garter garter.
But all would have been for naught without Stephen Powell’s funny, touching, powerful performance as Falstaff—and, not least, Verdi’s glorious music.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”