“Falstaff” is an operatic bauble, easily dismissed as a bit of comedic fun, yet considered by some, such as conductor James Conlon, to be one of the two crowning achievements of Verdi’s long career. But isn’t comedy often undervalued? Rarely in any of the arts is humor given the serious critical attention showered upon its more somber brethren. Yet anyone who has tried his hand knows how easily comedy can slip off the tracks and crash. “Falstaff” floats and renders its wares so seamlessly we are entertained without recognizing the effort both in the creation and production.
In an interesting juxtaposition, last weekend Los Angeles was treated to two important works by major artists at the end of their very long lives. “Falstaff” was finished when Verdi was 80, and the 96-year-old Martha Graham created “Maple Leaf Rag” (performed as part of the inaugural program for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts). Both works are lighthearted yet complex. Each pokes subtle, good-natured fun at his own earlier, sometimes heavy-handedness. Each brings an intimation of optimism not usually associated with venerability.
This LA Opera production of “Falstaff” does not stray far from convention. For the most part that works well. I am not a fan of new just to be new. The set suggests Stratford-on-Avon or the Old Globe with colorful costumes appropriate to the times. A side benefit of the staging is a foreshortening, which has the salutary effect of helping to overcome the Chandler’s cavernous stage. The operatic character Falstaff is an amalgam forged from “Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV.” The scrim used for scene changes looks much like rough cloth that might have been used in Shakespeare’s time. Unfortunately, in a fatuous gesture, quotes from “The Merry Wives” are projected on the scrim, as though we need reminding that this is high culture. Better to spend the effort to lower the supertitles to below the proscenium where they would have been useful in following the fast-moving libretto while keeping an eye on the action.
With the exception of the superfluous projected quotes, director Lee Blakeley has created a mood of swift lightheartedness that effectively conveys meaning as well as humor. Roberto Frontali (Falstaff) glories in his girth and perfectly portrays the blindness of vanity. Joel Sorensen was called in two hours before the opening night curtain was raised to fill in for an ill Robert Brubaker as Dr. Caius. So seamless was his performance it was impossible to believe he was not part of the cast.
Such is the construction of “Falstaff” that it is an ensemble work rather than a showcase for individuals. There are no show-stopping arias; instead, a continuous flow of story and melody leaves little time for the “wows” that are deserved. Carmen Giannattasio (Alice Ford) and Ronnita Nicole Miller (Mistress Quickly) deserve special mention even in this well-matched cast for their dramatic flair as well as superb voices.
All in all, the current LA Opera production does not disappoint. If you do not mind your serious music being entertaining and light, it is a good bet you’ll find “Falstaff” to be a satisfying evening at the opera. If Sturm und Drang is your thing, well … please let the rest of us enjoy a bit of escapist fun.