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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


Verdi, Falstaff: Kent Nagano, conductor; Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 28 May, 2005 (opening matinee) (HS)

Alice Ford Kallen Esperian, soprano
Nannetta Celena Shafer, soprano
Quickly Jane Henschel, mezzo soprano
Meg Page Milene Kitic, mezzo soprano
Fenton Danil Shtoda, tenor
Dr. Caius David Cangelosi, tenor
Bardolph Greg Fedderly, tenor
Falstaff Bryn Terfel, baritone
Ford Vassily Gerello, baritone
Pistol Dean Peterson, bass

With so many key roles, Verdi's Falstaff seldom comes together with a completely wonderful cast. The best you can hope for is a nice melding of voices, good ensemble work, and a real star in the title role. With a conductor who can capture the quicksilver qualities of the score, that's enough to make Verdi's final, gloriously delicate opera a satisfying experience.

Los Angeles Opera got mostly there in its final offering of the 2004-2005 season, largely thanks to the towering presence of Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as the fat knight and the fleet conducting of Kent Nagano, now the company's music director.

The production, a relic of the 1982 Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra's project that featured the sterling conducting of Carlo Maria Giulini (and captured on CD and video), was a co-production with Covent Garden and Teatro Communale of Florence. The sets work well, especially dressed in as much autumnal color as director Stephen Lawless, who works a lot at Glyndbourne, could pour onto the stage. He strew yellow and orange leaves over tables in Falstaff's cellar digs at the Garter Inn and everywhere in the courtyard at Ford's house. This is a nice touch. Not only is Verdi's autumnal work but Falstaff can pick up and toss a handful of the leaves as the supertitles translate an Act I line of his that he is in his "Indian summer."

There is also a lovely coup de theatre in the final scene change when the façade of the Garter Inn silently folds in on itself to become the wide trunk of a tree, the bushy leaves dropping slowly into place from the flies. Unfortunately, elements of the Scene I set were dragged off the stage during the last few measures of the scene, in which Verdi writes a delicate rising line that seems to evaporate into thin air. The dragging props fought with the moment. For some reason, L.A. Opera also omits the intermission between Acts I and II, making for an hour-and-a-half-long first act. That's about the same length as Act I of Rossini's Barber of Seville, but it comes as a surprise in this opera. It makes theatrical sense, as both acts alternate between the Garter Inn and Ford's house, and they both concern the plot to get back at Falstaff for trying to make time with both Alice Ford and Meg Page with the same love letter. But it's a long time to wait for a potty break.

Terfel's Falstaff is one of those stage creations that are so mesmerizing you can't take your eyes off him. First of all, the costume department has made him look movie-perfect in every detail. No edge of a bald cap shows, the massive strapped-on belly jiggles, and every wrinkle and wispy hair looks real. Terfel's every nuance, every reaction, every movement to accommodate his paunch, feels exactly right. He mines so many comedic nuances they are hard to recount. Reading the tavern bill, when he comes to "un acciuga" (one anchovy) he touches his fingers to his lips in the universal sign for "that was delicious." At the start of Act II, when Bardolph and Pistol arrive to introduce Quickly, he is lolling in his chair asleep, crumpled, it seems, in four different directions. In the second scene, instead of climbing into the laundry basket to get away from the rampaging husband and his posse, he dives headfirst (earning a round of applause from the audience).

Act III begins with the tavern-keeper come out to get some tablecloths off a clothesline next to the Thames when he spots the laundry basket, tips it over and out tumbles Falstaff. Terfel makes great comedic use of the basket, crawling into it for shelter at one point and closing himself up in it when Quickly arrives.

He so inhabits this role that you forget it's a strapping Welshman under all that stuff. Only the voice is youthful. One of the most gratifying aspects of Terfel in this role is that he can sing every note, and does. His characterization has deepened considerably since I first saw it three years ago in Chicago. He was astounding then, but now it's an order of magnitude more complete. At some point Falstaff interacts individually with most of the rest of the cast. Terfel changes his attitude and his vocal timbre just a bit for each one, exactly the sort of thing a wily old con artist who lives by his wits would do. He was at his funniest wooing Alice in the brief seduction scene, ultimately singing "Quand'era un paggio" on Alice's table, lying on his side.

Vocally, Terfel was in fine form. Although he cut short the final note of the Honor Monologue, everything else rang clear and true, whether in full voice, in velvety mezza voce or the occasional falsetto for laughs.

Of the rest of the cast, the strongest voices seemed to be in the lesser roles. Milene Kitic's Meg Page had the vocal chops to go nose to nose with Terfel, a rich, refulgent mezzo with steely backbone, but she only sings with him in the ensembles. Jane Henschel's Quickly was also strong, not as vocally opulent but she showed excellent comedic timing. Her tiny, almost imperceptible curtsy as she sang "Reverenza" was charming. Kallen Esperian showed off impressive cleavage but got off to a rocky start vocally, making squally sounds as Alice Ford in Act I, but she settled in better in the later acts.

As Nannetta and Fenton, soprano Celena Shafer and tenor Danil Shtoda both brought sweet voices, youthful ardor and musical clarity to their parts, although neither one quite got the magic in their music.

David Cangelosi's fussbudget of a Dr. Caius tried too hard to be funny but he sang the music with precision, especially in the ensembles. As Ford, Ukrainian baritone Vassily Gerello seemed a little shaky, not out of character for Ford, but the voice has plenty of heft. As Falstaff's sidekicks Tenor Greg Fedderly as Bardolph and bass Dean Peterson as Pistol made a musically strong pair and they played well off of Terfel, making their scenes a pleasure to watch.

Harvey Steiman

Falstaff performs at L.A. Opera through June 15.




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)