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This review by Alan Mallach was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.

Opera Review: `Falstaff’

E-mail: AlanMallach@princetoninfo.com

Opera Festival of New Jersey’s new production of Giuseppe

Verdi’s "Falstaff" is pure delight. Sung and acted with energy

and style by a vigorous young cast, and driven by Willie Anthony Waters’

propulsive conducting, it offers the audience a winning mixture of

low comedy, romance, and enchantment.

Verdi’s last opera, "Falstaff" comes largely from Shakespeare’s

"The Merry Wives of Windsor." It retells the famous story

of the elderly Sir John Falstaff’s attempt to seduce Alice Ford and

Meg Page, two respectable married women of Windsor, and the clever

way in which they turn the tables on him when they discover his game.

Into this tale — with its ample opportunities for comedy and intrigue

— Verdi weaves the story of Alice’s daughter Nanetta and her lover

Fenton, and how they thwart her father’s attempt to marry her off

to the pedantic Dr. Caius and find happiness together.

Verdi, who was approaching 80 when he completed this work, lavished

a lifetime of musical ideas on "Falstaff." Never before in

Verdi’s music had brilliant melodies, motifs, orchestral interjections

and harmonic ideas so tumbled over one another. Themes that once would

have served as the basis for an entire scene come and go in seconds,

to be replaced by the next brilliant idea. In this opera of quicksilver

character, comedy, romance, pathos and joy are intermingled, constantly

shifting back and forth, weaving a texture that is complex and simple

at the same time.

From the moment the curtain rises, and we see Mark Delavan

as Falstaff sitting at his desk, writing his identical letters to

Alice and Meg, we know we are in the hands of a master of the role.

Delavan is well-known for his interpretation of this part, which area

opera goers may have seen at Glimmerglass or New York City Opera,

and deservedly so. His singing and acting are both wonderfully expressive,

as he moves around the stage with a sort of elephantine grace, contemplating

his latest, and most probably his last, amorous adventure. Often portrayed

as older and more tired than Delavan’s Falstaff, we are not given

here the potentially darker side of the character. Delavan is an endearing

Falstaff, still young at heart, always ready with a winning smile

or a twinkle in his eye, even at his most outrageous moments.

Opera Festival has assembled a worthy cast in what is very much an

ensemble opera. Particularly praiseworthy were Victor Benedetti as

Ford, and Jonathan Boyd as Fenton. Boyd, ideally cast as Nanetta’s

ardent young lover, has a fresh, warm tenor. His one extended aria,

the sonnet that opens the last act, was one of the evening’s musical

high points, with its exquisite legato and beautifully held pianissimo

high notes. Benedetti has a fine, resonant bass-baritone voice, and

his second act "is it a dream…or reality?" monologue, perhaps

the darkest moment of the evening, was powerfully delivered.

The women are also strong, with Juliana Rambaldi showing both vocal

strength and a strong stage presence as Mistress Ford. Kristen Plumley

is an attractive, winsome Nanetta, and Hillary Nicholson shows a nice

comedic streak as Dame Quickly. The smaller roles, including Meg,

Bardolph, Pistol, and Dr. Caius, are all capably handled, and all

the singers work together effectively in the many trios, quartets,

and quintets that make up so much of the work. The orchestra played

well for conductor Waters, although, as was the case with "Carmen,"

it had a tendency to overshadow the singers, particularly in moments

where the brass predominates.

Director Michael McConnell effectively stages the opera, his cast

moving constantly on stage, while successfully resisting — sometimes

narrowly — the temptation to overdo the comic business and turn

opera into farce.

The weakest element of this production is the single unit set, used

throughout, and made up of a series of very large and badly painted

oil paintings strung across the stage, with a large tree planted in

the middle. While the tree eventually became Herne’s Oak, the centerpiece

of the last act, it was unclear what it was doing earlier smack in

the middle of a room at the Garter Inn. I unable to figure out what

the point of the paintings might be. And from a practical standpoint,

the set created a constricted, awkward space for the actors, in which

exits and entrances appeared to have no particular logic or consistency.

While this was not a problem in the more intimate scenes, it tended

to lead to considerable confusion in the more crowded episodes, particularly

the last act, where much of the magical quality experienced in other

productions of Falstaff was lost.

While "Falstaff" is a comedy, and often a very funny one,

it is far more than a farce. It is the distillation of the insights

of a wise old man about human nature and about love, and about the

need for each generation to give way to the next. While Sir John is

coming to the end of his amorous adventures, Nanetta and Fenton are

just beginning to experience the joys and torments of love. In this

regard, it bears a strange similarity to Wagner’s "Die Meistersinger,"

which is also about time, and the passing of the torch from one generation

to the next, and moreover, the only other operatic comedy that can

be compared in its breadth and musical genius to Verdi’s "Falstaff."

Opera lovers young and old will not want to miss the opportunity to

see this enchanting production of one of opera’s greatest and most

enjoyable works.

— Alan Mallach

Falstaff, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. $22 to $82. Performances

continue Sunday, July 9, 2 p.m. and Saturday, July 15, 8

p.m.


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